Student-led protests demand better treatment from college administrations

Student-led protests have long been an integral part of college life. From the first known student-led demonstration in 1507 to now, young people at colleges around the world have understood the power of their voice.

“College students are prompted every day to question every assumption,” Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told Yahoo News. “And I think that in many ways, they take those things to heart, and they push for change around them. We all benefit from that change.”

Video Transcript

- Complaints of mold and mice and roaches has been fueling the longest protests in the institution's history. They're calling on the administration to remedy the housing situation as well as restore student, faculty and alumni positions on the board of trustees.

EMERSON SYKES: My name is Emerson Sykes. I'm a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. It's been inspiring to work with these activists all over the country who I think are having a huge positive impact on their campuses and making academia a more sustainable endeavor for all the people who are involved.

In terms of the University responses, I think quite often what we see are universities sort of hesitate because they're not sure exactly what to do. And then either sort of take a hands-off approach and they say, well, it's the first free speech, there's nothing we can do about this, or they sort of have a more heavy-handed response.

And I think, you know, what I often encourage administrators to do is first look at your community, listen to the people who are trying to raise their voices and figure out how you can heal as a community, setting aside for a moment the First Amendment response. But of course, we do think that none of this activism, none of this progress would be possible without robust protections for free speech and free assembly.

- We came, we saw, we declared and we want. We want for our students. We want for our University, both historic Howard and the future Howard. And we want for our community.

When you look at the history of student-led protest, it shows the power that they have, the power of student-led protest, whether it's in South Africa, whether it's in the United States, generations ago or today, I think young activists, particularly college campuses, have consistently led the way in terms of making sure that we are asking the right questions. They are as college students prompted every day to question every assumption, every-- everything that they're taught and everything that they're told. And I think that, you know, in many ways they take those things to heart and they push for change around them, and we all benefit from that change.

I've seen activists working in a lot of different types of places and I've seen non-profit organizations trying to make change in lots and lots of different issues and in lots of different places. And there is an element of-- you know, in every society around the world, there are divisions, there is oppression, there is bias, there's discrimination and there are those who are trying to fight all those things for a more equitable future, right?

So on some level, this is the human condition. And as much as these are questions and issues that are deeply baked into our country, they were there from the beginning and they persist. I think at the same time, we have to realize that progress is possible. But progress is only possible if you have limits on the government's authority to punish people for their ideas and for their speech and for their protest.