The Daily Explains: Key changes students have proposed to Northwestern’s demonstration policy


Illustration by Gemma DeCetra

Associated Student Government Executive Accountability Officer Molly Whalen plans to talk with the Policy Review Committee in the year ahead to implement changes to Northwestern’s demonstration policy.

Joanna Hou, Assistant Design Editor

After several years of debate between activists and Northwestern administrators over NU’s demonstration policy, talks are underway to rewrite several parts of the document. 

The University has revised its policy multiple times over the past five years. After a 2017 campus visit from a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement representative sparked protest, administrators worked with activists to revise the policy. While it underwent routine review in 2020, only the FAQ section received changes. 

In recent years, demonstrations like the NU Community Not Cops protests throughout fall 2020 and an on-field student protest at a home football game during Family Weekend 2021 have led the University to reiterate its demonstration guidelines. But as senior University officials have emphasized the policy, activists have scrutinized it.

Protesters have expressed frustrations with the demonstration policy for multiple reasons, including its vague language around potential consequences for student activists. 

Last year, Margot Bartol (Weinberg ’22) and Karina Karbo-Wright (Weinberg ’22) discussed the policy with several administrators and activist groups, including NUCNC, Fossil Free NU, NU Dissenters, Students Organizing for Labor Rights and Students for Justice in Palestine.

After gathering key complaints and concerns from these groups, the two annotated the current demonstration policy with proposed changes. Now, McCormick junior Molly Whalen, Associated Student Government’s executive officer of accountability, is advocating for those revisions. 

Whalen plans to talk with NU’s Policy Review Committee in hopes of implementing some of these proposals in 2023. Here are some of the most significant proposed changes to the demonstration policy. 

Understanding the disruptive nature of protest

The current policy states demonstrators should notify Student Organizations and Activities at least 48 hours before the planned start of the event. While SOA cannot bar protests from occurring, it asks for notice so it can “best facilitate planning.”  

According to the policy, community members cannot “obstruct” regularly scheduled University activities, including meetings, ceremonies and “University business.” 

“It kind of treats a protest as an event that gets planned ahead of time,” Whalen said. “That’s not always how it happens.” 

Activists have said the University’s guidelines on pre-planned protests contradict the nature of protest as a disruptive act. The proposed policy accounts for these complaints by striking the 48-hour rule and the word “obstruct.”

Reworking the Event Support Team

The Event Support Team is composed of Division of Student Affairs staff who volunteer for the positions. The team’s goal, as listed in the demonstration policy, is to “assist with the management of the event.” 

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Jon Yates said the team coordinates with event organizers, provides them assistance if they need it, and advises “stakeholders on the demonstration policy and expectations.” 

But activists have said the team lacks transparency and feel there is a lack of trust between organizers and administration. 

“It’s kind of unrealistic that administration is going to be involved in a large way in student demonstrations, especially if the student demonstration is protesting something that administration is doing,” Whalen said. 

Whalen said advocates are trying to reshape the team to internally advocate for organizers to the administration. Instead of holding a management role, the team would serve as a resource for activists. 

There is also a proposed revision to the FAQ portion of the demonstration policy that would list contact information and names of current team members, which would provide more transparency about the group’s composition. 

Curbing police interactions

One of the major goals for revision is policy that would reduce police interactions. NU’s current policy requires organizers inform police before the demonstration, ensures police are present and allows police to make protesters identify themselves.

“The hard line (the) administration has is, police are never going to be completely gone,” Whalen said. “What Karina, Margot and myself are trying to do is limit that interaction as much as possible.” 

The proposed revisions include instructing police to keep a distance from and not speak to protesters. The annotations strike the clause where protesters would have to identify themselves. 

The current policy also focuses on the police’s role in protecting property, which the annotations also strike. Whalen said the valuation of property over people should not be in the policy.  

Establishing transparency around enforcement

Specific consequences for protesters who violate the demonstration policy are currently unclear. The policy reads that consequences are “context specific” and dependent on the severity of violations, in addition to the relevance of other policies or any prior misconduct.

Several activists have previously taken issue with this part of the policy, claiming it leaves students feeling unsafe and concerned about hypothetical consequences like loss of visa status or expulsion. 

But in meetings with administrators, Whalen said she learned no student has ever been charged with breaching the demonstration policy. 

“That’s good to hear that this has not been used in a punitive manner,” Whalen said. “But that is not transparent at all. The way they worded it on the website, you think something is gonna happen (to you).” 

The proposed annotations to the demonstration policy more clearly outline what realistic enforcement may look like, calling on the University to first opt for restorative or educational intervention whenever possible. 

Though no student has been charged with violating the policy, Whalen said protestors have faced disciplinary actions for protest-related incidents, like property damage during demonstrations. 

“Solely violating this policy is unlikely to result in suspension or expulsion for students,” the proposed annotation reads. “However, violation of other University policies during a protest or demonstration may result in formal student conduct action.” 

Moving toward a receptive administration 

Whalen has presented a broad overview of proposed changes to the University’s Policy Review Committee, which writes the demonstration policy. The committee will convene Winter Quarter to review the annotations line by line. 

From initial meetings with Roma Khanna, associate provost for strategy and policy and head of the PRC, Whalen said it appears most of these changes will pass through smoothly. However, she expects more clarity after the initial committee meeting. 

“Everyone (in the committee) seems very receptive to the changes,” Whalen said. “(But) I’m interested to see which ones they think are not fine.” 

Whalen is planning to facilitate more conversations before the policy is solidified, including with activist groups. While the demonstration policy is scheduled to undergo routine review in August 2023, Whalen said Khanna is working to move the date up to late winter or early spring. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @joannah_11

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