With a campus as large and diverse as IU Bloomington, a common way for people to express ideas, beliefs, and opinions is to host a protest or demonstration. While a demonstration can be an effective method of bringing people together, it’s important to take safety measures for all involved. Here are some things to consider when planning or attending a protest or demonstration on IU’s campus.
What are IU’s rules around protesting?
IU’s Free Speech guidelines site shares that students may protest or demonstrate on campus, provided that the event is not disruptive to the educational environment or potentially dangerous to others. Dissenting opinions should take the form of civil dialogue, and beliefs and opinions should be shared in a way that does not take the form of physical violence or pose a threat of physical violence or the destruction of property. The university works to balance free speech rights with university policy and the responsibility to protect public health, safety, and welfare.
What constitutes “free speech?”
The U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech, including spoken and written words, as well as symbolic speech and expressive activity. Holding a peaceful protest that does not threaten anyone, disrupt learning or damage property, is allowed on IU’s campus. Examples of permitted speech activities include wearing apparel that communicates a message, engaging in expressive activities like taking a knee or staging a sit in. Spoken words, signs and tabling are also allowed.
What isn’t covered under free speech?
IU’s Free Speech website states that obscenity, physical violence, specific threats of physical violence, intimidation, and destruction of property are not protected.
The university can impose limits on protected speech activities as long as the limitations are reasonable and not based on viewpoint or content. Its website states it retains the authority to regulate the time, place and manner of free speech and expressive activities to protect the public health and safety, and to prevent disruption of campus functions.
Kathy Adams Riester, Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs, said that making a direct threat to a specific person or inciting imminent damage to property is not permitted.
“If you think about someone saying ‘Oh, everyone should go out and start a fire,’ or things like that -- inciting that kind of violence and damage is not protected speech,” she said.
Harassment is also not allowed. Adams Riester said that while some people might disagree or be offended by what a speaker says, that doesn’t always mean the speech is harmful or unlawful. The test for whether speech is harassment depends on if the speech is “severe, pervasive, and directed to a particular individual or group,” Riester said.
When attending a protest or hosting a counter-protest, Riester said, being so disruptive that people are no longer able to listen to the speaker is not protected speech.
Where can I hold a protest on campus?
Historically, the most popular place to host a demonstration, Adams Riester said, is Dunn Meadow. However, there are multiple other places people often request to use on campus, such as the Sample Gates and the Woodburn clock tower, which is the inspiration for the title of this newsletter.
Most outdoor spaces used for regular programming can also be used to host a protest if the space is large enough to accommodate a group. Groups must be careful not to block entrances and exits to a building, however. Adams Riester said that protests cannot be held in a location where planned events are already taking place.
Some spots on campus cannot be reserved for any kind of events or tabling, Adams Riester said, such as Dunn's Woods and the Arboretum, which are reserved for quiet reflection.
How can I stay safe in a large group on campus?
During COVID-19, Adams Riester recommends wearing a mask and carrying hand sanitizer if you choose.
*However, note that with COVID-19 cases declining rapidly at IU and throughout the state, masks will be optional on campus beginning March 4, 2022. The action coincides with the anticipated expiration of state and county public health orders on that date.
Physical safety may also become a concern in some situations. She said IU's Demonstration Response and Safety Team typically sends staff to protests to answer questions, ensure safety, and, if necessary, call the police. Pushing, shoving, and yelling could lead safety officials to bring in the police.
“That’s where you get into, ‘Is it protected or unprotected speech?’ If people are yelling back and forth and there’s a potential for imminent violence of someone hitting another person, it gets into unprotected speech,” she said. “Obviously, we don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Listening to your own sense of personal safety is important as well, she said. Riester said that so far during her time at IU, all of the protests she’s seen have been peaceful.
“If you feel like a crowd is not reacting in a way that’s safe or appropriate, let someone know so we can address that behavior,” Riester said.
Protests have long been used by advocates and supporters of social movements to make change and disseminate ideas, and their successes reach back centuries. The Silent Sentinels, a group of women in support of women's suffrage, protested in front of the White House for two years starting in 1917. They protested at the White House gates, and later in Lafayette Square, until June 4, 1919, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.
The Black Lives Matter protests during 2020 and 2021 were paramount in raising awareness surrounding racism and equal treatment of Black people. The murder of George Floyd sparked a push in the movement, during which people took to the streets for protests to demand change. Widely considered some of the most significant protests in American history, the demonstrations increased discussion about police brutality, intersectionality and equity worldwide. Politicians, institutions and individuals acknowledged the need for systemic change.
After 17 people were killed during a 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students who survived the incident organized the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. Organizers estimated that approximately 800,000 attended the initial march, and over 1 million people attended similar events across the U.S. One of the biggest rallies for gun control in the history of Washington, D.C. and one of the biggest youth protests since the Vietnam War— according to the Associated Press—the march inspired school walkouts across the nation and pushed for awareness about the gun violence epidemic and changes in gun control laws. In response, Florida's governor signed a $400 million dollar bill to tighten the state's gun laws, including raising the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21. Several other states also passed red flag laws, which allow for the temporary removal of firearms if someone poses a danger to themselves or others, and bump stocks were banned nationally.
These protests are just a few of the demonstrations that have made a lasting impact throughout the nation. Coming together and mobilizing has been throughout history, and continues to be, one of the most popular forms of advocacy for issues of all kinds. If you feel inclined to participate, it's possible to organize, even as a student—and to make a meaningful impression by doing so.