Student Activism and Freedom of Speech at the University of Hawaii

May 6, 2005

An article (account required for access) in The Chronicle of Higher Education today announces a victory for student activists engaging in a protest against increased military funding at the University of Hawaii (UH). On Tuesday, a group of about 50 students ended a six-day sit-in at the president’s office after the interim president personally delivered a letter to them addressing their concerns. Although this was a victory for the students in getting administrators to guarantee greater transparency with regard to a new research center funded by the military, this was also a perfect example of what would not constitute expression protected by the First Amendment. The president’s response seemed to be a show of respect and sympathy for the students’ expression; however, a six-day sit-in constitutes a takeover of a private office—an act that could have been punishable under criminal law. Student activists, especially those experiencing less friendly relations with campus administrators (for example, those engaging in affirmative action bake sales), might want to review the “Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions” section in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus to get a better sense of the risk they would be taking when attempting to protest in non-public forums such as administrative offices. While these students seem to have gotten what they wanted, others might not be so fortunate.