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FIRE's Definitive FAQ for College Protests

Research & Learn

What are your rights when it comes to protesting on a college campus? What forms of protest are protected? What's not? 

During the months of campus protests following the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and subsequent war in Gaza, FIRE explained your civil liberties in times of unrest.

Protesters block police vehicles from leaving the University of Texas at Austin on Monday, April 29, 2024

Student protest is a proud democratic tradition on our college campuses. 

For generations, college students have engaged in protest to express their views, to actively participate in the public conversation and, in doing so, to draw wider attention to causes they care about. 

Since FIRE's founding in 1999, we've seen students engage in First Amendment-protected peaceful protests. We’ve also seen severe campus disruptions, most recently sparked by the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attacks on Israel and subsequent war in Gaza. Hundreds of students across the country protested institutional engagement with Israel and showed solidarity with students at Columbia University, who were arrested for protesting in the form of a round-the-clock encampment. And in Texas, state troopers acting under Gov. Greg Abbott’s direction arrested at least 50 demonstrators at the University of Texas at Austin. This came after a March 27 executive order from Gov. Abbott, in which he singled out the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the same group that organized yesterday’s protest, for discipline in the event that the group violated campus speech policies designed to “address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech.”

The ability to distinguish between peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and genuine misconduct is as important now as ever.

To be clear: FIRE takes no stance on the content of the speech we defendTime and again, both recently and throughout our 25 years defending student rights, we’ve defended the rights of pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli speakers alike. We defended the rights of students to campaign for Bernie Sanders and a professor who was fired for criticizing Mike Pence. We have defended the rights of athletes kneeling during the national anthem and students disciplined for distributing American flags; an animal rights advocate and a hunting club; student clubs hosting speakers on both the left and right; and so much more.

Yet we’ve always drawn a distinction between protected speech and unprotected conduct: The former reflects the core purpose of a functioning university; the latter undermines it. 

Students should know their rights. We hope this Q&A will equip students to speak freely, and administrators to know what forms of protest are protected by the First Amendment.

Your Rights Explained

For students, faculty, and administrators, here's what you need to know.