The norms of college protests in court

Arguments in a California courtroom revolve around this question: what are the norms governing college protests?

Sociologist Steven Clayman took the stand on Thursday, the final day of testimony. He is an expert in “speaker-audience interaction,” and has written a scholarly article titled, “Booing: The Anatomy of a Disaffiliative Response,” which examines environments such as presidential debates, TV talk shows and British Parliament. He believes audience participation cannot be prevented because members of the crowd are “free agents,” able to express approval or disapproval of what a speaker is saying.

Having watched a video of the Irvine 11 incident, Clayman affirmed that the audience response seemed to be a “normal and unavoidable” part of Ambassador Michael Oren’sspeech.

Lead prosecutor Dan Wagner then fired, “It’s unavoidable that 10 people would stand up with planned statements that have nothing to do with what the speaker is saying? . . . Are you saying that the only way to prevent [protests] is to put a straitjacket and muzzle on them?” The questions were stricken by the judge.
Ten UC Irvine and UC Riverside students have been charged with misdemeanor conspiracy to commit a crime and misdemeanor disruption of a meeting. To be convicted of the latter, one must commit an act that violates the “implicit customs” or “explicit rules” for the event. The defense team claims the defendants did neither, arguing that they were merely following the norms and customs of protests on college campuses.

So what exactly is “normal” college protest behavior? A number of colleges have faced these questions in recent years as protests have moved from just being outside the event to occurring during the event. Think the “Don’t Tase Me Bro” incident of 2007. Or witness the various pie-throwing attempts involving politicians. I wonder if this trial is then less about whether such actions are harmful but rather how these norms have changed over the decades and whether there is widely understood agreement about these changes.

Of course, this particular trial in California involves a number of contentious political and social issues.

I wonder if this case, and other similar ones, will lead to more schools creating more explicit rules about what is allowed and not allowed in on-campus protests and to make this information widely known.

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