CPE Statement Against the Use of Law Enforcement to Disrupt Student Protests on College Campuses

April 30 2024

The Center for Policing Equity fully supports college students exercising their First Amendment rights. While there are reports that a small minority of protesters have used despicable hate speech and vile anti-semitism—that absolutely merits response in the interest of public safety—law enforcement should never be used as a remedy for non-violent protests, as the majority of recent campus activism has been described. Witnessing this wave of civil unrest, disturbing images of confrontation, and reports of students’ housing and meal plans being ripped away, we are particularly disturbed that it is often universities themselves who are calling for law enforcement intervention. This is unfair to students, could result in the deportation of some, and undermines our systems of learning. 

As we have seen at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., law enforcement agencies often do not see a need to—and do not wish to—intervene in these protests. Universities must honor their public obligation to be incubators of intellectual exploration in a way that does not penalize students in response to political theater. Calling in the police and using arrests as the consequence for non-violent speech violates that obligation. Finally, just as every call to 911 involves contexts beyond the caller and the police, universities using law enforcement to disperse protests occur in the broader context of a generation’s long assault on the legitimacy of higher education. In this context, protecting students, resisting calls to arrest non-violent protesters, and championing higher education are allied. We will not police our way out of the politics that produced these protests. But we may all suffer if universities continue to try.