Activism on college campuses has a long and rich history in the United States. From the Civil Rights movement to the Vietnam War protests to demonstrations during the 2020 presidential election, colleges and universities have been at the heart of many of the movements for social change.
All students at the University of Utah have the right to freedom of expression, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which includes everything from speech to posters, to protest. One of the responsibilities of the Office of Student Affairs is to help students understand the policies and procedures that guide how they can express themselves on campus. As part of this effort, Student Affairs has created a series of online training modules where students can learn about their rights and responsibilities when exercising freedom of expression on campus.
“Regardless of what side of the proverbial spectrum students stand on, I want them to understand that their time at the university is the perfect opportunity to learn how to get their voices heard. We think these training modules provide that information and more,” said Jason Ramirez, the U’s dean of students.
Ramirez and his team have four initial modules planned. Alexandra Menzdorf, case manager of student accountability, counsels students regarding their rights and responsibilities and played a key role in creating the materials. The module topics are as follows:
- Module One: What is Activism?
- Module Two: Free Speech
- Module Three: How to Safely Protest on Campus
- Module Four: Your Rights & Responsibilities as a Student
“I believe in diversity of thought and civil discourse,” Ramirez said. “These freedoms drive change and provide opportunities for us all to progress as a global community. And so, I want our University of Utah students to know there are resources available for them to do this both effectively and safely so that their rights aren’t infringed upon, but also so that they don’t infringe on others’ rights and get themselves into sticky situations.”
The first module, “What Is Activism?”, is available now, and the others will be available soon. As an introduction to this resource, Ramirez answered some questions about activism and freedom of expression on campus.
How do you define activism?
Activism, broadly defined, is actions that individuals or groups take to bring about political or social change. When we start talking about activism at universities, there is often a much narrower definition and we typically look at activism only as protest. However, there are many other forms of activism that encompass more than just the demonstrations we see. There are letter-writing campaigns, there are efforts to educate the community through programming, there are sit-ins, rallies, social media campaigns, etc. There are multiple ways that students can exercise their rights in terms of demonstrating that they want to be heard.
Why did you create the campus activism modules for students?
In Student Affairs, we believe it’s our collective responsibility to educate our campus community on their rights and responsibilities. We want to protect the expression of ideas, and we also need to take all steps necessary to promote an inclusive and non-discriminatory environment for students and protect our community from those who seek to promote conflict rather than conversation, debate and advocacy.
Given that we are committed to those ideals, the motivation in creating the modules was to allow us to say, “Here are the different options you have and here are the limitations outlined within the laws.” It’s important to make sure that students, faculty and staff, as they are demonstrating their rights, understand where the boundaries are and the differences in rights they have based on their position.
Students actually have different rights than employees do on campus, and making sure they understand the differences is important, especially since some students are also employed by the university.
How do you hope students will use these modules?
Watching the modules is the first step. As we all know, the world has been very divided and there are many social and political issues that are impacting our communities. This, coupled with the fact that the 2024 presidential election is coming up, led us to realize we should prepare our students and community as best we can. These moments tend to always bring up the many different social issues and political issues that are in the world. And even our state legislative session brings up issues that faculty, staff and students want to talk about and be engaged with.
Our hope is that students will access these trainings prior to engaging in activism activities just to make sure they know and understand the rules, regulations, policies and procedures.
Where can students learn more about how to exercise their rights and respect the rights of others?
I lean heavily on the American Civil Liberties Union. They tend to have great information that is bipartisan and doesn’t have biases one way or another. We also encourage students to educate themselves through local political chapters or other community partners that may be able to speak to certain issues.
On campus, our Bennion Center for Community Engagement has been working for years with activists and on programming that supports freedom of expression. They are an incredible resource on campus that students can talk with. Students can also get support from our Student Leadership and Involvement office, which can help them learn about their options in terms of making sure their voices are heard. The Associated Students of the University of Utah are champions of the student voice and can help students express their needs through their processes.
My office (Office of the Dean of Students) can also help with interpreting university policy on student activism. If a student wants to play the “what if” game and talk through what could happen if they were to go down certain paths, we can do that with them.
What else do you want students to know about activism on campus?
The expression of ideas and viewpoints is the bedrock of education. Universities were created for students to be able to learn about things they agree with and things they disagree with and then understand how to engage in those conversations.
I want students to understand that they can choose to debate, discuss and dialogue about topics. And there are differences between all of those approaches. They can also choose not to engage. At the end of the day, we want everyone to feel they can be heard and that they can express their viewpoints in safe and appropriate ways. And our office’s job is to help them to navigate that.