US Current Trends in Civic Space

These trends provide succinct overviews of emerging issues affecting civic space in the United States.


Narrowing Space for Campus Protests

U.S. university campuses have long been associated with student protests and free expression. In recent years, there has been a revitalization of this tradition with many campuses seeing a surge in student demonstrations, whether this has been related to the black lives matter movement, protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policies, or other issues.  

Amidst a charged national political environment, some of these demonstrations have resulted in confrontations between protesters and speakers, counter-protesters, or university administrators. In this context, a number of new regulations or laws regulating campus protests have passed or are being considered. Some of these new rules help add clarity to students’ rights, but others risk chilling student participation in protests. For example, as highlighted in ICNL’s U.S. protest law tracker, North Carolina enacted a law in June 2017 that requires mandatory disciplinary sanctions against those who disrupt the “functioning” of a state university campus or interfere with the “the protected free expression rights of others.” Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin have similar bills pending.

These bills that require mandatory sanctions against student protesters who disrupt speakers on campus have been promoted by groups like the Goldwater Institute in the name of protecting free speech. Other groups, like PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), have been critical of these mandatory minimum sanctions, claiming that they do not strike the correct balance between the rights of students and speakers and can be abused to unfairly punish student protesters. Fearful of mandatory punishments, students may simply decide not to express themselves.

It is not just states that have passed laws targeting student protests, but also University governing bodies. For example, in October 2017, the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents approved a resolution in which a student would be suspended if they twice were involved in "violent or other disorderly misconduct that materially and substantially disrupted the free expression of others." A third such incident would lead to their expulsion.

Universities have also limited where students can protest. After a sit-in in which student protesters demanded their university become a sanctuary campus, Ohio University adopted a new policy in September 2017 that bans all demonstrations and sit-ins inside University buildings. This is just one version of a “free speech zones” that limit student protests to (frequently very) restricted areas on campus. FIRE estimates that one in ten universities currently have a free speech zone policy.

Universities have a proud history of hosting speakers who may hold views with whom many students disagree and some protests create genuine safety concerns. However, laws and regulations that impose disproportionate or mandatory penalties on student protesters or severely restrict the spaces in which students can protest threaten to chill students’ right to express their views and America’s long tradition of student protests.

January 31, 2018

For an analysis of some of the most concerning provisions of U.S. campus speech bills, see ICNL’s Legislative Briefer “Campus Speech Bills and the Right to Protest” (April 2018).

For more information contact: Nick Robinson at

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