Dealing with Protestors: Minimizing Conflict While Protecting School Interests
Here are some tips on how your college can meet its own goals while also accommodating the First Amendment rights of protestors.
There seems to be no dearth of issues currently dividing Americans. Whether it’s immigration; COVID vaccination and mask mandates; the content of instruction in our public schools and the role of parents in shaping the curriculum; defunding the police; negative responses to invited speakers at college campuses; or vitriolic local, state or federal elections, people with strong views seek to shape those of others. Often, these efforts at persuasion take the form of mass demonstrations and protests.
College campuses confront two major challenges when dealing with protestors. The first is the significant divergence between the protestors’ goals and those of the academic institution.
The protestors seek to draw attention to their cause; change people’s minds; grow their movement; and exploit a venue that allows contact with the public and media coverage. The academic institution, on the other hand, wants to maintain safety and security; protect property; maintain its academic operations; protect the school’s reputation; avoid liability; and embrace the objectivity, skepticism and civility integral to intellectual discourse. For instance, protestors may see the distribution of leaflets as a key component of outreach and persuasion while college officials may view them as a source of litter requiring the commitment of resources to collect and dispose of the resulting clutter.
This divergence of goals and motivations leads us to a second challenge: the fact that both parties view the other as a potential impediment to their respective goals, thereby establishing a competitive or, at worst, conflictual relationship between them. This situation is inherently stressful and threatens collaborative decision-making because people “under the influence” tend to narrow their focus, interpret opposing views as personal threats, and ascribe uncharitable motivations to their perceived opponents. These perspectives, if unchecked, tend to change the interaction between protestors and school officials into zero-sum contests and increase the likelihood of conflict.
This dire prediction, however, is not inevitable.
Reconciling College Policies with Protestors’ Rights
Most colleges consider themselves marketplaces of ideas. Nevertheless, they have policies governing speech and expression as well as who may post, solicit and distribute materials on property owned by the institution or under its control. Rather than being viewed in a restrictive light, these policies seek to maximize expressive opportunities while maintaining civility, preventing prohibited speech, and protecting school operations. Decisions are to be made in an objective and content/viewpoint value-neutral manner that achieve the following objectives:
- Expressive activities will not violate or hinder the rights of others, disrupt college operations or engage in otherwise prohibited activities such as proscribed speech (obscenity, fighting words, libel, slander, true threats, child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless actions and solicitations to commit crimes).
- Expressive activities, to include speeches, demonstrations and literature distribution are generally granted more latitude outdoors (e.g., prior permission is not required to come onto a public campus and address passersby or distribute materials), while the school reserves the right to identify reasonable restrictions (e.g., designated areas for posting literature and specify requirements to be associated with the college) for certain activities when conducted indoors.
- The college may place reasonable restrictions (based on the above) on expressive activities, and property use may be terminated for violation of the law or college policies.
The school’s rights and interests must be balanced against those of the protestors. In general, the absence of safety or traffic concerns reduces the amount of control an institution may exercise over protestors, whose rights include:
- Right to assemble on public property, especially “traditional public forums,” such as streets, sidewalks, parks, and other common areas (but protestors may NOT block access to a government/public building or interfere with other purposes for which the property is designed.) If a dispersal order is issued, protestors must receive adequate time to disburse and an identified route they may use.
- Right to speak out, even if the views are unpopular and counter to school values.
- Right to photograph and record activities (including those of the police) if the protestors are lawfully present in a public space, not jeopardizing public or their own safety, and not interfering with school operations.
- Right to march on sidewalks and in streets without a permit as long as marchers do not obstruct vehicular or pedestrian traffic. The college does not have the right to route the march in a way that denies First Amendment rights. (A permit may be required if street closures or traffic congestion results.)
- Counter-protestors also have the right to assemble and speak. They may be separated from the protestors but should be allowed to remain within sight and sound of them.
Tips on Achieving Mutual Accommodation
While it may appear the college-protestor relationship is defined as an “unmovable object meets irresistible force,” many initiatives can mitigate conflict and even meet the majority of school and protestors’ respective goals. These initiatives fall into one of five categories:
Upon becoming aware of a protest planned at an institution, the concerned staff, including representatives from police and security, emergency management, legal, facilities, parking, medical, public information, selected student groups and college leadership should meet immediately to discuss the expected scope of the event, the group’s history, the event’s timing, the sensitivity of the issues, respective areas of responsibilities, etc. Likely contingencies should be identified and key policies (e.g., trespass, freedom of speech, access to campus locations) should be reviewed. Also, remind college personnel they may be legally recorded (i.e., photographed and audio-visually recorded).
While many entities within the institution are stakeholders in this operation, a single person (primus inter pares) should be identified to deal with the protestors. This person should be the one who meets with protest leaders to identify the college’s equities and requirements before the event, assist in helping the protestors to get set up and resolve issues that arise. Law enforcement/security should not fill this role. A uniform, badge and especially a gun emphasizes compliance and enforcement, reducing the college’s perceived flexibility and potentially inflaming interactions. Similarly, as issues associated with the protestors’ adherence to college rules arise, this individual should be the first to interact with the leader(s) of the protestors. Law enforcement may be called in if continued non-compliance or an immediate danger exists, but this should be a last rather than first resort.
When meeting with the protestors, identify their leader(s) and meet with them (in-person, if possible), preferably before the event to identify their goals and expectations and to present the college’s rules and priorities. This meeting also provides an opportunity to establish rapport, which will be useful in addressing emergent issues during the event. In addition to maintaining low visibility of law enforcement/security, endeavor to meet privately with the protest leader(s) in the event of an issue during the event. Meeting privately may allow you to explain your perspective and your counterpart to exercise additional flexibility without the perceived need to “save face.”
Procedures and Plans
The initial planning meetings, both with internal college staff and between the college representative and protest leader(s), described above, will facilitate mutual understanding and the resolution of issues during the protest.
Additionally, separate the protestors from counter-protestors. (If known ahead of time or as soon as they arrive, identify the leader(s) of the counter group and pursue the same strategy described above with the protestors.) In the event someone has to be escorted from the venue, the school’s lead representative should make the initial request and escort the individual(s) from the scene. As an official representative of the institution, any refusal by protestors to comply with an order to leave constitutes trespass and converts the issue to one of non-compliance with a school policy to a law enforcement matter.
Finally, and despite the many pains taken by officials to seek common ground and resolve emergent issues, school representatives dealing with protestors should never be complacent. Remember, motivations differ and the person with whom you are dealing is under stress. While many of the communication techniques discussed below will help attenuate potential conflict, differences of opinions and goals could escalate from the verbal to the physical with little warning, especially in the presence of a crowd. For this reason, plans should also be made with medical responders, either to be on scene or on call if medical services are needed. It will be necessary to ensure unfettered ingress and egress of medical vehicles in the event of an emergency. Parking and traffic control should be major considerations of event planners.
Whether the protest is to be held outdoors or indoors, try to have only one entrance but many exits. Minimizing the number of entrances allows campus officials to estimate crowd size, scan for weapons and contraband (e.g., will protestors be allowed to carry backpacks to the protest venue?), and control access to the venue. Multiple exits will facilitate crowd dispersion, which could expedite response to injuries in the event of violence, the need for a rapid evacuation, or some other concerning event.
Don’t neglect crowd/site control basics. These items include but are not limited to:
- Electronic and written signage (directions to parking, entrances, event rules, etc.)
- Yellow tape to mark boundaries
- First aid kits
- Flashlights and traffic wands
- Magnetometers if needed
While preparing your personnel, planning, facility preparation and having the right equipment on hand are critical to dealing with protestors. Communication skills are also key to achieving both protestor and college goals in the most amicable manner possible. The following eight suggestions are based on various conflict de-escalation techniques.
- Control your ego. If you make it about you, the interaction becomes a contest that must have a winner and a loser. Nobody wants to be the loser, especially someone who is already stressed out. In the event you make a mistake or say the wrong thing, be humble. Apologize and offer an explanation about why you did what you did. (See explanation, below)
- Explain what you are doing and why. This is the information age and people want explanations. While in your official capacity as a college representative, you may have the right to issue commands, an authoritarian persona is sure to generate conflict. You don’t want to be in the position we resented as kids when asking why we had to do something, we were told “Because I’m your father (or mother) and I said so.”
- Request, don’t command. Closely related to explanation is requesting. Asking rather than ordering someone to do something is always better, especially when one is trying to establish common ground and cooperation.
- Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, reminds us that most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Listening (and paraphrasing what the person just told you) ensures you understand what the person is saying and shows you respect the person by giving your undivided attention.
- Watch your inflection, tone, pitch and volume. Six months from now, people will not remember your precise words, but they will remember how you said them. Inflection and tone can suggest sarcasm and change the perceived meaning of your words.
- Pay attention to your and their non-verbal cues. Body posture and gestures (e.g., looking around for an audience, checking one’s watch, balling one’s fists) can suggest actions that belie one’s words. Also, remember, the interpretation of gestures and factors such as personal space, eye contact, smiling, touching etc. vary significantly with gender, age, national origin, experience, culture, religion and many other factors. Your words and gestures may be misinterpreted, and you should not expect others to see you as you see yourself. Recognizing these disconnects is a crucial step in achieving genuine and effective communication.
- Don’t say the wrong things; say the right things. There are many things we say that antagonize others and generate conflict. Here are a few:
- Telling someone to “calm down” suggests a person already under the influence has a behavioral problem.
- Telling someone “because those are the rules” suggests you are an impotent functionary with no independent decision authority or interest in seeking a compromise.
- Telling someone “I’m not going to say this again” is a lie. You always say it again. Further, it provides an incentive for the other person to make you say it again. Finally, why would you want to give up the tactical advantage of telling someone you are about to escalate the matter? A better approach is to ask someone to do the right thing; then, if needed, explain why you are asking; if he or she still fails to comply, provide options (positive ones first that show the benefits of compliance and then identify the many negative consequences associated with non-compliance); then, confirm continued non-compliance (“Is there anything I can say to get you to comply with my request? I like to think there is!”); and finally, if the individual still refuses to comply, go to your endgame (e.g., remove the person, call the police, terminate the protest, etc.). You can never be faulted for not working to resolve the issue.
Here are some of the right things you should say:
- “Your safety is important to us.”
- “We support your First Amendment rights and welcome your contributions. We also support the First Amendment rights of all members of the campus community, to include those with whom you disagree.”
- “As a marketplace of ideas, this school is committed to allowing all views to be represented and expressed in a civil manner.”
- “We are also obligated to maintain a safe and secure environment in which the safety of all and the protection of property are achieved.”
- “We will work with you on achieving your goals but also expect you to work with us on achieving ours.”
- “I appreciate your working with me on this. Working together, we can achieve our respective goals.”
Be sure to keep others in the know. The myriad stakeholders identified above have a need to know what’s going on. Ensure your communications network apprises people of information they need to make decisions and accomplish their assigned tasks.
Yes, Opposing Views Can Work Together
This essay’s underlying assumption is that people with opposing views can work together to achieve a majority of their goals. However, this process is arduous. In addition to a planned event, there is also the possibility of spontaneous “pop-up” events, which give school officials little or no warning. While pop-up events offer greater challenges, the communications tips offered above are still effective.
This article is a superficial treatment of the many moving parts in dealing with a protest. Failure to address these and others in a timely and effective fashion can lead to conflict, injury, negative media attention, liability and a host of other bad outcomes.