Plan aims to safeguard students, free speech

URBANA, Ill. — In an effort to be transparent about its plans and decision-making process during First Amendment gatherings, the University of Illinois Police Department is reminding campus community members about the Demonstration Response Plan which details exactly how university officials intend to safeguard students and their right to free expression.

College campuses often serve as flashpoints for political disputes, which makes planning and transparency that much more important heading into a contentious election season.

The pillars of the plan include clear communication, relationship building and a transparent decision-making process before and during an event, with campus safety and the protection of constitutional rights being the main priorities.

“As the university police department, we have a duty and a desire to act as facilitators for those who want to exercise their right to free speech,” said Lt. Todd Short. “We do that by establishing relationships with event organizers, planning ahead to ask what they need from us to keep their event safe, and then making sure we are prepared for any kind of disturbance that may occur.”

The plan also includes processes to ensure the business of the university may proceed without disruption, and it establishes a “demonstration decision-making team” with membership from many university offices to offer input to the university police department during a demonstration to ensure that enforcement decisions are not made in a vacuum.

“Demonstrations are acceptable so long as they are nonviolent and do not threaten the safety of individuals, limit the expression of others, impede access to or damage property, or substantially interfere with the educational process and business operations,” Short said. “The vast majority of the demonstrations we see on our campus fall well within these parameters, but occasionally we have an outlier that becomes disruptive and the police may need to take action with input from the decision-making team.”

In those cases, police and university administrators anticipate that those preexisting relationships with event organizers will prevail and any disruptive behavior associated with the demonstration will be quickly alleviated. Having police officers step in to make arrests is always the last resort and would be used only in cases where the rights or the safety of others is impeded.

The plan largely formalizes steps that the university had already been taking in recent years, Short said. But publishing a formal plan clarifies the expectations and parameters for First Amendment gatherings to occur safely and without impeding the rights of other community members.

“College campuses are and should be spaces for free thought and expression,” Short said. “We are here to assist our campus community members in that process and see to it that their events proceed safely, both for demonstrators and other campus community members.”

The full Demonstration Response Plan is available on the University of Illinois Police Department website.