The end of the school year is usually a celebratory time at colleges and universities, but instead of parties this year, there were protests and police. More than 2,000 students were arrested.

What laws did the students break? And what punishments could they face?

How Did the Protests Start?

In mid-April 2024, students across the country began to ramp up efforts to protest against Israel’s military bombardment of Gaza. Students started calling on their universities and colleges to divest from investments the students believe support Israel and the war in Gaza.

The protests mostly started in the Northeast. Columbia University was the site of the largest demonstration. From April 17 through April 30, more students began protesting at universities across the country. According to the Crowd Counting Consortium and reporting by The Washington Post, 150 colleges and universities across the country had some sort of pro-Palestinian demonstration.

Protests included activities such as:

  • Gathering in public spaces
  • Chanting
  • Creating disruptions
  • Setting up encampments of tents
  • Occupying buildings

While many protests were peaceful, some became combative when security and law enforcement were sent in to dismantle encampments and remove protesters. In some cases, clashes between protesters and police led to physical alterations, the deployment of tear gas, and arrests.

Related: If You’re Arrested for a Crime, Immediately Take These 6 Steps

Who Was Arrested?

More than 2,000 people were arrested during the campus protests, according to The Washington Post’s reporting.

Arrests happened all across the country. Columbia University had the most arrests with 220. University of California at Los Angeles was next with 200.

In Florida, three schools saw arrests. The University of South Florida had thirteen, the University of Florida had nine, and Florida State University had five.

What were the students doing to break the law?

What Rules & Laws Were the Protesters Breaking?

Students have a right to free speech. Under the First Amendment, they can express their opinions. However, the activities they use to express their speech can break campus rules and local and state laws.

The ACLU says students can speak out as long as they “don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate the school’s content-neutral policies.” In many cases, universities and colleges thought student activities went beyond their First Amendment rights and broke campus rules and laws.

In some cases, schools were clear about the guidelines for protests. For example, The University of Florida circulated a list of prohibited activities. As reported by news affiliate WUFT, the letter told students and faculty it was prohibited to litter, use tents or sleeping bags, block paths, use bullhorns or speakers, and protest inside buildings. The letter from campus police said those who violated the rules could be suspended or fired and banished from campus for three years.

Beyond being kicked out of school, students also faced potential criminal charges if they violated local and state laws. Once universities and colleges called in police, students began getting arrested.

The most common charges that led to arrest include misdemeanors such as:

  • Trespassing
  • Resisting arrest
  • Vandalism
  • Disorderly conduct (which includes disturbing the peace, loitering, obstructing traffic, and using extremely obscene or abusive language)

In some cases, the charges were more serious. Students charged with threatening violence or assaulting a police officer could face felony charges.

The potential consequences of the charges are outlined in state law and range by location. In all cases, misdemeanors would lead to lesser consequences than a felony, and the severity of the crimes would determine the extent of the consequences, which could include fines and jail time.

Related: Misdemeanor vs Felony: What’s the Difference? 

What Laws Against Protesting Exist in Florida?

According to reporting from The Washington Post, 27 students were arrested in Florida at college campuses. Those cases will follow Florida laws about protesting and disorderly conduct.

Chapter 870 of the Florida Statutes covers laws related to affrays, riots, and unlawful assemblies. Florida Statute 871.015 references protests and public assembly. The law says, “Whoever willfully and maliciously interrupts or disturbs any school or any assembly of people met for the worship of God, any assembly of people met for the purpose of acknowledging the death of an individual, or for any other lawful purpose commits a misdemeanor.”

Florida Statute 870.02 says, “If three or more persons meet together to commit a breach of the peace, or to do any other unlawful act, each of them shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree.” As for disorderly conduct, Florida Statute 877.03 says, “Conduct as to constitute a breach of the peace or disorderly conduct, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree.”

Other laws impose more severe felony charges against those involved in protests if they become excessively disruptive or dangerous.

Florida Statute 870.01 says, “All persons guilty of a riot, or of inciting or encouraging a riot, shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree.”

The charges against those arrested at a protest could range from a small misdemeanor to a more serious felony charge.

Were You Arrested? Talk to an Attorney Right Away

Getting arrested, whether on a misdemeanor or charge, is serious. If found guilty, you can face fines, probation, and jail time. If you are arrested, talk to a criminal defense attorney right away so you can immediately start planning a legal defense strategy. With the right approach, you may be able to lessen the charges and potential consequences, so act fast.

If you have a criminal case to discuss, contact attorney TJ Grimaldi today. All consultations are free. Request your consultation or call 813-226-1023 now.

TJ Grimaldi

TJ Grimaldi

TJ Grimaldi joined McIntyre in 2011. McIntyre recruited TJ to create the divisions of personal injury and family law, as well as to expand the existing criminal defense practice at the firm. During TJ’s tenure at McIntyre, he has helped oversee and grow these practice areas. He continues to practice in these divisions while also expanding his own practice areas to include estate planning and immigration law. TJ is admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of Florida and the United States District Court for the Middle and Southern Districts of Florida.