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Civil disobedience has consequences

A large, modern building with white pillar columns crisscrossed by bare branches.
Robertson Hall on a day with a partly cloudy sky.
Calvin Grover / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit a piece to the Opinion section, click here.

Imagine, if you will, that a relatively small, but passionate and loud — complete with drums, chants, and megaphones — group of Princeton students thought that SPIA should be renamed the Donald J. Trump School of Public and International Affairs and launch new initiatives focused on American greatness. After pressing their demands for many months to no effect, they decide that more direct action would be needed to bring attention to their cause. They march through the hallways of Robertson Hall, take an office, yell out of windows, and drop “Make America Great Again” flags through them, and announce that they will occupy the office until their demands are met.


Or perhaps the pro-Palestinian protesters determine in the fall that they should not be distracted by unrelated buildings like Clio Hall and the Graduate School, but should instead strike at the heart of the injustice at issue. They then go to every professor on campus who receives sponsored research or other funds from a list of companies with ties to Israel, such as Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Boeing, General Dynamics, and General Electric. They occupy their labs, centers, and offices and cast the professors, postdocs, graduate students, fellows, and faculty assistants out of their buildings and onto the sidewalks. They announce that they will not leave until the University disassociates from these blacklisted companies and their various subentities and affiliates.

I suspect many of my colleagues confronted with students attempting to occupy their offices and labs would respond by telling the protesters that they have about thirty seconds to get out before they call Public Safety to have them removed. They would not think that their own research and facilities should be held hostage by students demanding changes in University policy. They would not think that the University should negotiate with students over whether faculty research projects and labs should be shuttered to satisfy the students’ political sensibilities. They would not think that students should be allowed to shut down the work of the faculty indefinitely if the protesters simply refused to leave when asked nicely or told that they were in violation of University rules and engaged in criminal trespassing. And my colleagues should not think so.

Members of the campus community may put forward bad, or even repellent, ideas that no one wishes to adopt or should adopt. Universities should not suppress ideas, but they also should not allow members of the campus community to compel anyone to embrace ideas or treat ideas that they think are bad as if they were good. The fact that some students are passionate about a set of ideas does not mean that anyone else must share their passion. The fact that students might be disappointed by how their ideas are received by the broader campus community does not mean that they have any kind of right to demand that their ideas be received differently. Their ideas can be rejected, or simply ignored.

The purpose of a university is to foster the exploration of ideas, and not all of the ideas that modern universities explore are purely of academic interest. Myriad centers and programs and offices on campus invite speakers to campus and organize events to expose members of the campus community and beyond to issues and ideas on matters of public concern. The University makes it easy to form student groups that, in turn, can host discussions of issues that are of particular concern to students, even when the faculty or administration would not welcome those particular discussions. Universities have served as a public forum to discuss social and political controversies as well as centers of education and scholarly inquiry, and they have structured themselves as pluralistic institutions that allow many voices to be heard — not just those who hold the favor of central administrators, powerful donors, or popular majorities.

Protests can have a useful place on college campuses. They call attention to neglected issues and encourage discussion of marginalized ideas and perspectives. They can help change minds and inspire action. Those protests can challenge the status quo not only of the world order or of national politics but of the university itself. Protesters on campus can call upon policymakers across the globe or in the administration building to reconsider the path that they are on and reimagine what the future could be. Universities should provide ample space and avenues on campus for members of the campus community to express themselves on the issues of the day — and sometimes on the issues of tomorrow.

The University provides everyone on campus with opportunities to express themselves and seek to win and persuade an audience. What the University cannot do is guarantee to anyone that they will attract an audience or persuade anyone to share their views. Members of the campus community may hold unpopular views that remain unpopular even after they have presented their case.


But the advocacy for particular ideas through protest ceases to be expressive when protesters no longer take advantage of available opportunities to make a case to the broader community and instead seek to coerce other members of the campus community to simply accept their demands. Demands trade in the currency of coercion, not persuasion. Universities need to give no hearing to demands, and they should not tolerate those who wish to use force to make others accede to their demands.

There is no obligation to engage with protesters, whether those protesters are students seeking to change University policy or street preachers seeking to change campus culture. The SPIA faculty would not want Dean Amaney Jamal to “engage” and “negotiate” with protesters who had occupied their offices in order to make America great again. They would want those protesters removed so that they could get back to work. The science and engineering faculty would not want President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 to sit down with protesters to have a “dialogue” on whether their labs should be dismantled and their research projects shut down. They would want those protesters removed from their labs so that their work could continue.

Rules and laws exist for a reason, even on a university campus. Sometimes it might be necessary to engage in civil disobedience or even take direct action to try to stop the machinery of injustice. But taking such actions have consequences, and the mere fact that some wish to take those actions does not mean that anyone else must conclude that their actions were either laudable or justified or should be either encouraged or rewarded. When members of the campus community engage in conduct that violates the rules that allow the many diverse people on campus to coordinate their varied interests and activities, they are properly subject to disciplinary action. When protesters move from trying to persuade to trying to compel compliance with their demands, the correct response is simply to tell them “no” and to take what steps are necessary to restore the proper functioning of the University. 

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics. He can be reached at kewhitt[at]

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