Protests and Demonstrations on College Campuses


April 2017

Recent protests have highlighted the balance between the right to free expression and the obligation to be nondisruptive.

Recent years have seen a rise in activism and protest on college campuses around the nation.  Students, faculty and community members are increasingly making their voices heard through public protests and demonstrations.  Those protests have highlighted the balance between individuals’ right to free expression with their obligation to avoid behavior that is disruptive to the academic environment or disrespectful to other community members.

At public institutions, freedom of expression for students is protected by the free speech and press provisions of the First Amendment.  In Massachusetts, that right is also protected by state law.  Chapter 71, Section 82 of the Massachusetts General Laws provides that the “right of students to freedom of expression in the public schools of the commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.”  Both the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts have recognized some limitations on a student’s right of free expression, including the right of institutions to enforce rules that prohibit protests that substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the institution, or to place reasonable limitations on the time, place, or manner of the activity.    

At private institutions, speech is generally governed by the institutions’ policies, which frequently incorporate rights granted by the First Amendment.  Although some states have passed laws to protect speech at private institutions, most, including Massachusetts, have not.  

At MIT, the Mind and Hand Book contains a policy on Freedom of Expression (Section II (8)) that includes the following:

Freedom of expression is essential to the mission of a university. So is freedom from unreasonable and disruptive offense. Members of this educational community are encouraged to avoid putting these essential elements of our university to a balancing test. 

People who are offended by matters of speech or expression should consider speaking up promptly and in a civil fashion, and should be able to ask others to help them in a professional fashion to express concern. People who learn they have offended others by their manner of expression should consider immediately stopping the offense and apologizing.

Additional policies exist to provide guidance to students considering holding protests on campus, including policies against Disorderly Conduct and Harassment, and policies regarding the use of facilities.

Similarly, MIT’s Policies & Procedures, governing all MIT faculty and staff, encourage this balance:

In an academic community, the free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints reflected in the concept of academic freedom may sometimes prove disturbing or offensive to some. The examination and challenging of assumptions, beliefs or opinions is, however, intrinsic to the rigorous education that MIT strives to provide. The policies in section 9.0: Relations and Responsibilities Within the MIT Community, and in particular the personal conduct and harassment policies, are not intended to compromise the Institute’s traditional commitment to academic freedom or to education that encourages students to challenge their own views of themselves and the world.

Section 9.1 further provides that “[a]ll members of the MIT community are expected to conduct themselves with professionalism, personal integrity, and respect for the rights, differences and dignity of others.”  Any protest on campus must also adhere to Institute policies concerning the use of the MIT name, section 12.3: Use of Institute Name, and use of facilities, section 12.5: Use of Facilities, if they take place on Institute property, as well as lobbying guidelines, section 12.7: Political Action.

Additional policies exist to provide guidance to students considering holding protests on campus, including policies against Disorderly Conduct, Mind & Hand Book II (6) Disorderly Conduct, Harassment, Mind & Hand Book II (11) Harassment, and policies regarding the use of facilities, Mind & Hand BookII (15) Improper Use of Institute Property.

Voicing protest on MIT’s campus by all members of the MIT community, therefore, is permitted as long as it abides by MIT policies; and is not disruptive or raises safety issues.  If you have questions, please contact Dahlia Fetouh in the Office of the General Counsel at