What Does ‘Peaceful Protest’ Really Mean?


High school students across the United States have participated in organized protests against elected politicians who have not worked to enact gun control legislation in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. Students who survived the shooting have admirably led the charge in calling their generation to action, using social media to organize marches, demonstrations, protests and walkouts of high school classes.

Many high school students who have already participated in walkouts and protests have been punished by their high schools for missing class, as CNN has reported. In response to the discipline faced by protestors, various colleges and universities across the country have assured prospective students that discipline inflicted upon them by their schools as punishment for participation in peaceful protests will not affect their chances of admission. Brown University, University of Massachusetts Amherst and others all posted such statements to Twitter in the days following the shooting. On Monday, Middlebury followed suit, publishing its own statement on its admissions website.

Each statement varied in tone and style. Most notably, the posts referenced school shootings, gun control, free speech and protest in different ways. For example, Brown assured students that “peaceful, responsible protests against gun violence will not negatively impact decisions of admission to Brown.” Bucknell, however, tweeted that students who “receive disciplinary action due to participation in peaceful protests” would see no impact on their admissions decisions, omitting mention of gun control.

Middlebury’s statement places itself between the two sides, but in a vaguer category. It claims to respect free-speech rights of students and student applicants, including the right to engage in peaceful protest and civil disobedience. Ending its statement by addressing student applicants, the announcement guarantees that the admissions committee will consider situations with the belief that students are active citizens with political rights and obligations. The statement explicitly says this is true without regard to any specific political or social issue.

As a board, we believe deeply in the value of demonstration as a fundamental method for affecting change on college campuses and beyond, and we stand with the high school students across the country who have bravely chosen to strive for this change in their communities through protest. We have continually voiced our belief in demonstration since the protests against Charles Murray last February ignited a national debate about the limits of students’ right to demonstrate.

In response to Middlebury’s statement, this board would like to offer thoughts to the conversation. To be clear, we are in no way supporting or denouncing the statement. Rather, the board would like to use this opportunity to offer ideas that encourage people to question their definitions and beliefs regarding forms of protest and treatment of protesters.

While the college officially published this statement, we hope that it continues to apply to students in the future as we continue to work through this time of political and social tension. While this step can serve as an expression of support for young Americans navigating the debate over gun control, it should ultimately be implemented as a broader means of acknowledging how essential open, non-violent demonstration is as a fundamental right of students in America.

This policy should apply both to students protesting for gun control in the wake of the Parkland shooting and to those engaged in non-violent, non-hateful demonstration for other causes, now and in the future. From this, we should expand our definition of violence. It should include not only physical violence, but discriminatory abuse, structural violence and institutional violence — to name a few.

We also invite people to question what people mean when they say “peaceful.” Is a protest only not peaceful when it is inconvenient for someone? When do the ideas become too radical, and therefore deemed “non-peaceful”? For example, Middlebury administrators have looser restrictions with how to respond to student protests that do not publicly undermine its authority as an institution.

The Charles Murray protests are an example of a student-led movement to reject complicity. We must protect form above content of protests to ensure that future student protestors at Middlebury are not disciplined more harshly for protesting an issue with which the college administration does not agree.

We should also look to this institution’s history when considering the novelty (or lack thereof) of the issue of students’ rights to protest. According to “A People’s History of Middlebury,” most of the student body went on strike in November 1879 in support of a fellow student who accrued over 50 demerits as a response to his irresponsible antics against the demerit system introduced the year before. The result was a decision to suspend every student who protested. Soon after, negotiations continued and all punishments were rescinded, except for those of the student behind the reason for the protest.

Charles Murray showed that Middlebury was more willing to denounce those standing up for what they believed to be violent — whether the methods can be agreed upon or not — than to take the opportunity to be clearer on what we will and will not allow in our community.

History also shows how undecided the college is in how they treat protesters. This reality should be considered with how we respond to the college’s statement concerning “peaceful protest and civil disobedience.” Does the college support civil disobedience as long as it doesn’t expose the fractures in the institution’s foundation? Is the protest peaceful until those in charge feel like their authority is attacked?

The debate over students’ right to demonstrate, so closely tied to the national debate over freedom of expression on college campuses, has been a pertinent topic on this campus for longer period than most of us are aware. The college administration has repeatedly voiced its belief in free speech as essential to intellectual freedom, going further to connect that freedom with the freedom to protest in its most recent statement. In this era of political activism, moving forward has to come at some cost.That includes the risk that in making a brave announcement, Middlebury’s institution may assume some risk.

We hope that administrators will consider actions such as these as central to the mission of the college, rejecting the fear of risk that bolder actions may produce. This moment provides Middlebury with a valuable opportunity to confront our values — especially when they differ — and acknowledge the struggles of future students by validating their right to exercise their freedom to protest.