Ohio State Law Journal
Student activism has been part of the fabric of American higher education since the eighteenth century. Indeed, some scholars have called it "as American as apple pie." From Harvard's "Great Butter Rebellion" in 1766 when students pushed for better food to the multicultural movement of today when students have demanded increased diversity in student, staff, faculty, and curriculum, students have long pressed to have their voices heard. Continuing in this tradition, we now live in an age of student activists who, by organizing through social media, are getting more people involved in political conversations and causes than would otherwise be possible. On reflecting upon the relationship between social media and political activism, John G. Palfrey noted, "Twitter and Facebook have played a crucial role in almost any mass protest in the last few years." A recent example is #BlackLivesMatter.
After George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in July 2013 for the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, Alicia Garza, a special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and her friend, Patrisse Cullors, a community organizer working on prison reform, along with Opal Tometi, an activist for immigrant rights, developed the hashtag "#BlackLivesMatter." Garza explained the purpose of her social media campaign as, "A call to action....To make sure we are creating a world where black lives actually do matter." She also stated, "We understand organizing not to happen online but to be built through face-to-face connections and relationships where we build the trust necessary to move as a collective and exercise our collective power in order to win changes in our lives." Yet, social media has helped this effort by facilitating these face-to-face connections.
Recently, #BlackLivesMatter facilitated communication with activists around the country, helping to mobilize a new wave of nation-wide activism around the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many others. Protestors all over the country have connected with each other by posting and searching for this hashtag. James Taylor observed that "[#]Black Lives Matter" may be the most potent slogan since "Black Power," which Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) introduced to a crowd of civil rights activists almost fifty years ago.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has had real-world influence. For example, in the aftermath of highly publicized deaths of two African Americans at the hands of police officers—Michael Brown and Freddie Gray—it has pressured the Department of Justice to investigate the policing practices of Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. It has pushed states to remove the Confederate flag and other Confederate symbols from government buildings and public spaces. It has forced politicians to address issues of racial justice and criminal justice reform.
The movement has also influenced student activism for racial justice on university campuses. For example, in 2015, Harvard University students mobilized through #BlackLivesMatter and organized marches, panel discussions, teach-ins, and die-ins. During the same time, on the opposite coast, at the University of California, Berkeley, students and community members also held protests against racism as part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Similar protests arose on college campuses all over the country.
Social media has made it much easier for college students to voice their opinions and engage in campus protest. But what right do students have to engage in campus activism? How should colleges and universities balance the multiple interests at stake when students engage in protest? Although the illustrating example I chose for this Article centers on racial justice, my proposed student academic freedom protection would apply to other forms of activism as well.