Palestine protests / Protest

Protesting at university: What are my rights?

Can I protest at university? What powers do my university have if I protest? What are my rights as an international student?

Disclaimer: This article is for general information. It is not intended to be used as legal advice. For information on how to get legal advice, please see our ‘I need a lawyer’ page  or find contact details of law firms with protest law expertise on our bust cards.

The information below was correct as of 10 May 2024.

This page sets out the law which applies in England & Wales only.

This page was made in collaboration with the European Legal Support Center (‘ELSC’), with support from Jude Lanchin. ELSC provide free legal advice and assistance to individuals and organisations, including students, advocating for Palestinian rights in mainland Europe and the United Kingdom.

Your right to protest in university

Everyone has the right to protest and organise protests.

Students around the world have been protesting at their universities throughout history, to mobilise against domestic and international state violence, including against their own institutions’ complicity in those atrocities and injustices.

Your right to freedom of expression, including political expression, is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’). Your right to freedom of assembly is protected under Article 11 of the ECHR.

Your human rights under the ECHR have been brought into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998 (‘HRA’), which:

  • requires ‘public authorities’ to act in a way that is compatible with your rights; and
    allows you to bring a claim in UK courts when your rights are violated by a public authority.

More information about how the HRA works is available here.

Universities are considered public authorities for the purposes of the HRA – they are therefore required to act compatibly with your human rights under the ECHR. This does not include private universities.

Your Article 10 and Article 11 rights are ‘qualified’, however. This means that universities can lawfully restrict them, but only where it is:

  • in accordance with law;
  • for a ‘legitimate aim’ (which includes preventing crime or disorder, or protecting the rights and freedoms of others); and
  • proportionate (there are no other less restrictive measures available to the university to achieve their ‘legitimate aim(s)’).

Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 places a positive legal duty on universities to take ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to ensure freedom of speech (within the law) for their members, students, members of staff and visiting speakers. This legal duty also requires universities to have an up-to-date code of practice about securing freedom of speech. The code has to include:

  • the procedures that members, students and staff have to follow in relation to meetings and other activities, e.g. protest, held on university premises; and
  • the behaviours required by members, students and staff in connection with those activities.

You should be able to find your university’s policy on freedom of political expression (and protest) on their website, and read this thoroughly before organising a protest. The policy must have regard for your rights under the HRA.

Your right to not be discriminated against

Your university also has legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 – it is unlawful for them to discriminate against you based on protected characteristics, including race, religion and philosophical belief. Discrimination under the Equality Act includes:

  • Direct discrimination: where you are treated less favourably because of your protected characteristic.
  • Indirect discrimination: where a university policy or practice has a worse impact on you (and people who you share a protected characteristic with), even though it applies to everyone equally.

Challenging your university

If you believe that your protest activity, and/or human rights have been unfairly restricted or that you were discriminated against by your university, you should contact a solicitor specialising in public and human rights law to explore a potential legal challenge. More information is available on our advice page on using the HRA to challenge the decisions and actions of public authorities.

What if my university starts disciplinary proceedings against me?

Each university will also have their own student disciplinary policies and procedures in the event of allegations of misconduct by students, e.g. if there’s been a breach of the university’s code of conduct on freedom of expression.

If you are subject to academic disciplinary proceedings as a result of protest activity, you should contact a solicitor specialising in education law to advise you as soon as  possible.  If the proceedings relate to protests in support of Palestine, you should contact ELSC, who can provide you with support throughout the investigation and disciplinary process.

We have compiled the following practical advice should your university invite you to any meetings in connection with academic disciplinary proceedings:

  • You should download all correspondence that you receive from your university about the disciplinary proceedings and investigation onto a personal device outside of the university network.
  • You should not attend any meetings, phone calls or chats with the university alone. You should always bring someone to support you, including emotionally. You may not have a right to be accompanied to all meetings – you will need to check your university’s relevant policies on this. However, you should always ask to be accompanied, even to informal chats. You should inform the university of your accompanying individual in advance of the meeting.
  • Get into contact with your university’s UCU branch to check whether they can support you. You can also contact your university’s student union for support. If you would prefer, you can also ask a fellow student to accompany you to meetings.
  • You (or the person accompanying you) should take a full note of everything that is said at a meeting. It is important to have your own version of what is said.
  • Before attending any meeting, you should request the following information from the university:
    • Who will be present at the meeting?
    • The nature of the complaint, including the specific allegation(s) made against you and the relevant policies/laws which they say are engaged;
    • The specific procedure that the university intends to follow, with reference to relevant internal policies;
    • Any and all evidence that the university intends to rely on to prove the allegations;
    • Clarification as to the steps the university will be taking to ensure that all information remains confidential, including in the event of a request for comment from the media;
    • A copy of any questions that will be asked in the meeting in advance so that you can better prepare.
  • If you have a disability, you can request reasonable adjustments that would make it easier for you to engage with the meeting.
  • If you need more time to prepare for the meeting, including finding someone to accompany you to the meeting, contact the university as soon as possible to request a postponement.
  • Create bullet points in advance of meetings of what you want to say (after seeking legal advice). You should point out the rights you have as a student, which have been set out on this page. If you don’t have an answer to a question in a meeting or do not feel prepared to answer a particular question, you should ask to respond to that question in writing after the meeting.

If you are concerned about being identified by your university during a protest, you may consider wearing a face mask and non-distinctive clothing to provide some protection, and connect to a personal hotspot rather than university wifi (‘eduroam’).

What law enforcement powers do university staff have?

Every university will have a campus security and safety team. Universities should set out information about these teams, and what powers and responsibilities they have.  This information can usually be found on their websites.

University security staff are not police – generally, they do not have the same level of law enforcement powers. For example, they do not have powers to forcibly search or question you. There have been occasions where campus security staff have used force against student protestors; however, they, like any other private individual, can only use ‘reasonable force’ ( justifiable in the circumstances, proportionate and not excessive) under Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, where it is “in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders.” This may apply, for example, if they are carrying out a ‘citizen’s arrest’ under Section 24A of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984 or if they are assisting a police officer during an arrest.

Under Section 40 of the Police Reform Act 2002, private security companies can have their staff ‘accredited’ with certain police powers by their local police force, under a ‘community safety accreditation scheme’ (‘CSAS’). Schedule 5 of the Police Reform Act 2002 lists powers that can be exercised by accredited staff and they include things like giving someone a fine (‘penalty notice’).

Police powers in university

University staff may report campus incidents to the police and request that they attend to them. If the police do attend your campus, they must exercise their powers lawfully. To find out more about police powers and your rights, you can visit our following pages:

The next section covers the potential protest-related offences which the police may seek to enforce.

The police do not have the right to enter your student accommodation without a warrant unless:

  • you (or a housemate) invite them in – the police cannot enter if consent is given under pressure.
  • they are arresting you for an indictable offence
  • they are stopping a crime that is in progress, or preventing a crime that they suspect is about to happen (e.g. a breach of the peace)
  • to ‘save life or limb’
  • to prevent serious damage to property

Campus staff cannot let the police into your accommodation or give them the keys to your flat to give them entry into your property.

Getting legal support

If the police have arrested you, or they are treating you as a suspect in relation to protest-related offences, it is important that you seek legal advice as soon as possible from a solicitor who specialises in criminal defence and protest law. Our protest bust cards list some law firms with this expertise who may be able to assist you.

If you feel that the police have mistreated you and behaved unlawfully at or following a protest e.g., they subjected you to excessive force, an unlawful arrest, an unlawful stop and search, or entered into your property unlawfully, you should contact a solicitor that specialises in actions against the police and public authorities, who may be able to assist you in bringing a police complaint and/or potential legal challenge against the police.

Occupying university buildings and setting up encampments

Below, we explain the police powers, criminal offences and ‘civil wrongs’ that have been applied (and may be applied) to university protests in the UK, particularly those involving occupation of university buildings/spaces or the formation of encampments, including:

  • Trespass;
  • Direction to leave;
  • Aggravated trespass;
  • Public nuisance;
  • Locking on;
  • Harassment, alarm or distress; and
  • Participation in a prohibited protest

For some of the police powers and criminal offences outlined below, whether they can apply to your protest will depend on whether the land on which the protest is taking place is public or private – and if you knew (or were reckless as to whether) the land was public or private.

Whether land is public or private is essentially determined by access, with private land restricting members of the public from being on it without permission or authorisation.

Note that the public or private nature of university land will depend on the particular setting, and just because a university is considered a ‘public authority’ for the purposes of the HRA 1998, this won’t necessarily mean that its land is public. Whether land is public or private is essentially determined by ownership and access, with private land restricting members of the public from being on it without permission/authorisation. This permission/authorisation can be limited.

Trespass

Trespass itself is not a criminal offence, but rather a civil ‘wrong’, which could result in legal action being brought by the landowner in the civil courts to remove you, and, in certain circumstances, you being directed to leave by the police (see the next section below).

Trespass involves:

  • being on private land;
  • without the express or implied permission of the landowner; or
  • being on private land with permission, but going beyond the scope of what the permission allows.

It may also involve being on private land with permission, but going beyond what the permission allows.

Direction to leave

Under Section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the senior police officer on the ground at a protest can direct you to leave land and to remove any vehicles or property you have with you where they reasonably believe that:

  • you and one or more other people are trespassing on land; and 
  • you are there with a share purpose of residing there for any period; and 
  • reasonable steps have been taken by, or on behalf of, the owner (or person entitled to the land), to ask you to leave; and
  • any of you have:
    • caused damage or disruption to the land or property;
    • used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour / disorderly behaviour / displayed threatening, abusive or insulting writing or signs towards the owner, their family member(s) or their employees or agents; or
    • you have six or more vehicles on the land.

Aggravated trespass

Under Section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, it is a criminal offence for you to:

  • trespass on land;
  • where people are engaging in, or be about to engage in, lawful activity (i.e. day-to-day activities); and
  • do something with the intention of
    • intimidating people to deter them from engaging in lawful activity;
    • obstruct lawful activity; or
    • disruption lawful activity.

The senior police officer on the ground has the power, under Section 69 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to direct you to leave that particular land if they believe you have committed, are committing, or are about to commit aggravated trespass.

Failing to comply with a direction under Section 69 is a criminal offence, but the prosecution will need to prove that you:

  • knew about the Section 69 direction;
  • knew it applied to you; and
  • failed to leave the land as soon as practicable / left and then returned to the land within 3 months of the direction.

Determining if a trespass has taken place can be complicated – we recommend that you check site maps and your university website in advance to determine as far as possible what parts of the university land is private land.

Public nuisance

Under Section 78 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act 2022, it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly do something / fail to do something you are legally required to do, which…
risks or causes ‘serious harm’ to the public; or
obstructs the public in the exercise or enjoyment of their rights.

‘Serious harm’ is defined very broadly as including:

  • ‘death’ / ‘personal injury’ / ‘disease’’;
  • loss of, or damage to, property; or
  • ‘serious distress’ / ‘serious annoyance’ / ‘serious inconvenience’ / ‘serious loss of amenity’.

It is a defence for you to prove that you had a ‘reasonable excuse’.

If you are convicted of this offence, you are punishable with:

  • Imprisonment for up to 6 months, a fine or both, if summary conviction; or
  • Imprisonment for up to 10 years, a fine or both, if on indictment.

Locking on and being equipped to lock on

‘Locking on’ is when protesters attach themselves to other people, objects or land. Under Section 1 of the Public Order Act 2023, it is a criminal offence to:

  • attach yourself to another person, an object or land;
  • attach a person to another person, object, or land;
  • attach an object to another object or to land; and 
  • cause, or be capable of causing, ‘serious disruption’ to two or more people or to an organisation in a public place.

To commit this offence, you must have intended your acts to cause serious disruption, or you were reckless (you were taking unjustifiable risks) as to whether your acts would cause serious disruption.

If convicted, you are punishable with up to six months’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

There is a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’ for this offence.

The first arrests for this offence (reported by Netpol) was of a group of Palestine Action protesters on 1 November 2023, after they chained themselves together at the entrance to Israeli arms company Elbit System’s HQ.

Under Section 2 of the Public Order Act 2023, it is also a criminal offence to be equipped for locking on. You will be committing this offence if you are:

  • carrying an object in public; and
  • intending to use the object ‘in the course of or in connection with’ yourself or any other person committing the offence of locking on.

If convicted, you are punishable with an unlimited fine.

Harassment, alarm or distress

Section 5 of the Public Order 1986 provides for the offence of ‘harassment, alarm or distress’. To commit this offence, you must be:

  • using ‘threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour’ / displaying (e.g. on a placard) ‘any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive’; and 
  • within sight or hearing of someone who is ‘likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress’.

These terms have their ordinary English meaning and it will be for the court to determine whether your words or behaviour meet this threshold, depending on the factual circumstances. The courts have stated that words or behaviour causing resentment, protest, annoyance, and even anger or disgust may not be ‘threatening or abusive’.

In protest cases, the court must make this determination while giving proper consideration to your freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR.

This term similarly has its ordinary English meaning and it will be for the court to determine whether your behaviour meets this threshold, depending on the factual circumstances. ‘Disorderly behaviour’ is intended to cover behaviour that is not necessarily ‘threatening or abusive’ and it doesn’t have to involve violence or threatened violence.

It will be for the court to determine whether your words or behaviour are likely to cause a person to feel ‘harassed’, depending on the factual circumstances. ‘Harassment’ doesn’t require you to cause someone emotional disturbance or cause them to fear for their safety. It also doesn’t have to be very serious, but it should be more than trivial.

It will be for the court to determine whether your words or behaviour are likely to cause a person to feel ‘distress’, depending on the factual circumstances. ‘Distress’ requires real emotional disturbance or upset. Again, while it doesn’t have to be very serious, it also should be more than trivial.

Note that you don’t have to actually cause another person to be harassed, alarmed or distressed to commit this offence.

However, you can only be guilty of this offence if:

  • you intended (or were at least aware) that your words / behaviour /written representations would be ‘threatening or abusive’; or 
  • you intended (or were at least aware) that your behaviour would be ‘disorderly’.

It is a defence for you to prove that (more likely than not):

  • you had ‘no reason to believe that there was any person within hearing or sight who was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress’; or 
  • your conduct can be said to have been ‘reasonable’.

If you are convicted of this offence, you may be liable for a fine of up to £1000.

Note that there is an additional, more serious offence under Section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986, for circumstances in which you:

  •  use ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ words or behaviour with the intention of causing harassment, alarm or distress to another person; and
  • you actually cause harassment, alarm or distress to another person.

If convicted of this more serious offence, you are punishable with:

  • imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months; or
  • an unlimited fine; or
  • both.

Participation in a prohibited protest

Under Section 14A of the Public Order Act 1986, a Chief Constable/Police Commissioner (or delegated to Assistant Chief Constable, or, if in London, Assistant/Deputy Commissioner or Commander) can prohibit or ban stationary protests within a 5 mile radius for up to 4 days (with the Home Secretary’s consent), but only if they reasonably believe that a planned protest:

  • is likely to be trespassing (on land with no/limited public access); and
  • may cause “serious disruption to the life of the community” / “significant damage” to important land, buildings or monuments.

Under Section 14B of the Public Order Act 1986, it is criminal offence to organise/participate in a prohibited protest march. If convicted, you are punishable with:

  • a fine of up to £1,000 (if a protester)
    a fine of up to £2,500 and/or up 3 months’ imprisonment (if an organiser).

You are also punishable with a fine of up to £2,500 and/or up to 3 months’ imprisonment if you incite others to participate in a prohibited protest march.

It is a criminal offence to organise/participate in a prohibited trespassory stationary protest. If convicted, you are punishable with:

  • a fine of up to £1,000 (if a protester)
  • a fine of up to £2,500 and/or up 3 months’ imprisonment (if an organiser).

You are also punishable with a fine of up to £2,500 and/or up to 3 months’ imprisonment if you incite others to participate in a prohibited trespassory stationary protest.

Breaching a dispersal order

Under Section 34 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Act 2014, a police officer of the rank of inspector or above can authorise (in a specific area for up to 48 hours) any uniformed police officer to exercise Section 35 ‘dispersal powers’ to direct a person in the area to leave and not return for the specified period.

The uniformed officer on the ground must:

  • have reasonable grounds to suspect that your behaviour has contributed to / is likely to contribute to:
    • members of the public in the area being harassed, alarmed, or distressed; or
    • crime / disorder

and

  • think that the direction is necessary to remove/reduce the likelihood that:
    • members of the public in the area will be harassed, alarmed, or distressed; or
    • there will be crime / disorder.

To give an authorisation, the senior police officer must be satisfied on reasonable grounds that dispersal powers may be necessary to remove/reduce the likelihood of:

  • members of the public in the area being harassed, alarmed, or distressed; or
  • crime / disorder.

The senior police officer must have ‘particular regard’ to Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR.

The authorisation must be:

  • in writing;
  • signed by the senior police officer; and
    specifiy the grounds.

Failing to comply with a direction from a uniformed police officer under Section 35 – without reasonable excuse – is a criminal offence. If convicted, you are punishable with:

  • up to 3 months’ imprisonment; or
  • a fine of up to £2500.

The police also have powers under Section 37 to direct you to surrender ‘any item in [your] possession or control’ that they reasonably believe has been used or is likely to be used ‘in behaviour that harasses, alarms or distresses members of the public.

Failing to comply with a direction from a uniformed police officer under Section 37 – without reasonable excuse – is a criminal offence. If convicted, you are punishable with a fine of up to £500.

To find out more about other protest-related offences, including those applied in the context of Palestine solidarity protests, you can find all of our pages on this topic here.

International students

You are not legally required to share your nationality or immigration status with the police, even if arrested at a protest. However, once arrested, the police may decide to carry out immigration checks if they suspect you are not a British citizen. For more information, Informed Dissent have produced this helpful guidance on the impact of arrest on immigration status. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Black Protest Legal Support have also produced this helpful immigration advice for protestors.

If you are facing difficulties with your student visa and immigration status following protest activity, we recommend that you seek urgent legal advice from a solicitor specialising in immigration law.

Legal observers and arrestee support

Legal observers are independent, legally-trained volunteers who monitor and record police conduct and provide legal information and support to organisers and protesters. You can approach them for information or support. They are easily recognisable at protests, wearing hi-vis jackets with “LEGAL OBSERVER” written across the back.

Arrestee support involves volunteers going to police stations to offer practical support to arrested protesters.

More information about the laws relevant to legal observers (and journalists) at protests is available here.

You can reach out to the following organisations to arrange legal observers and/or arrest support for your protest:

BLACK PROTEST LEGAL SUPPORT

Black Protest Legal Support (‘BPLS’) facilitates legal observers for protests that are organised by and/or involve the participation of Black and other racialised protesters. They also have a large network of lawyers who are committed to providing legal representation to Black and other racialised organisers/protesters who are arrested during protests.

Email: blackprotestlegal@protonmail.com / coordinatorBPLS@protonmail.com

Twitter & Instagram: @blkprotestlegal

Website: www.blackprotestlaw.org 

GREEN & BLACK CROSS (LONDON)

Green & Black Cross (‘GBC’) is an independent grassroots project that provides legal observers for protests, as well as delivering protest rights training.

GBC also facilitates arrestee support, where volunteers attend police stations to support arrested protesters or organisers. They have produced guides on protest rights, available via their website.

Telephone (Protest Support Line): 07946 541 511

Email: courtsupport@protonmail.com

Twitter & Instagram: @GBCLegal

Website: www.greenandblackcross.org

GREEN & BLACK CROSS (MANCHESTER)

GBC facilitates legal observers and arrestee support for protests in the Manchester area.

Telephone (Protest Support Line): 07761 911 121

Email: manchestergbc@riseup.net

Twitter: @GBCManchester

Instagram: @gbc_manchester

Website: www.greenandblackcross.org

BRISTOL DEFENDANT SOLIDARITY

Bristol Defendant Solidarity provides support (at police stations and court) for arrested protesters.

Telephone (via ‘Signal’ app): 07510 283 424

Email: bristoldefendantsolidarity@riseup.net

Twitter: @BristolDefenda1

Website: www.bristolabc.wordpress.com/defendant-solidarity/ 

Further support

European Legal Support Centre

ELSC is monitoring and providing support on incidents of repression against Palestine advocacy in EU & the UK, and you can report an incident and/or request legal support here.

Twitter & Instagram: @elsclegal

Contact webform: https://elsc.support/contact

Network for police monitoring (‘NETPOL’)

Netpol monitors public order, protest and street policing, and challenges policing which is excessive, discriminatory or threatens civil rights. They also have legal information resources on their website.

Email: info@netpol.org

Twitter & Facebook: @netpol

Instagram: @netpolCampaigns

Website: www.netpol.org

Address: Durning Hall Centre, Earlham Grove, London, E7 9AB

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