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Interim President Jeff Ettinger inside Morrill Hall on Sept. 20, 2023. Ettinger gets deep with the Daily: “It’s bittersweet.”
Ettinger reflects on his presidency
Published April 22, 2024

Trespassing a debate of legal rights

The University might be a public institution, but that doesn’t mean it’s public all the time.

Nine University students learned on May 4 during a sit-in that refusal to leave Morrill Hall by closing time meant arrests and trespassing charges.

They were asked to leave the building by 6 p.m. All nine were ultimately charged with trespassing.

Trespassing, a criminal misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of $1,000 in fines and 90 days in jail is a common offense protesters can be charged with. But University Police Chief Greg Hestness said it’s rare for student protests to result in arrests.

He said the University Police Department is dedicated to preserving everyone’s legal rights.

“Basically we monitor that everyone’s rights are protected, including the protesters,’ ” he said. “Our main duty is not to permit people to infringe on the legal rights of others.”

The most common way protesters infringe on others’ rights is through trespassing, he said. Even though the University is a public institution, not all parts of it are public at all times.

“Some University facilities are public virtually all the time, like parking lots,” Hestness said. “Most places are public for a period of time, like offices and classrooms. Some places are never public, like research labs and private laboratories.”

Minnesota laws

Protest law in Minnesota is basic, said Steve Simon, a clinical professor at the University’s Law School.

“If you enter into a person’s home, the entry alone is the crime,” he said. “But if the property is not a dwelling or private property, the property owner has to ask you to leave. It’s on your refusal to leave after you’ve been told to that you can be charged with trespassing.”

Simon said that since trespassing is a criminal charge, the prosecutor decides whether a person will be charged.

“But they’re more likely to pursue it if the property owner pushes for it,” he said.

Protesters are also often charged with disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process.

Simon said that when people are charged with these crimes, the issue is to what extent First Amendment rights can be considered a defense.

He said it’s difficult to prosecute protesters for disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct because they might be protected by the First Amendment.

“But it’s kind of hard to raise a First Amendment defense to trespassing charges,” he said.

The May 4 sit-in

The nine current and former students arrested at the May 4 sit-in eventually pleaded guilty. Five were prepared to go to trial last week until the judge lowered the penalties they faced under a plea bargain.

Dan Gordon, one of the students arrested, said he thinks trespassing is “just used to protect the status quo.”

“I think the whole definition of trespassing is held by the people in power,” he said. “It’s interpretive – police can bust into your house at any time, even without a warrant, and they don’t call that trespassing.”

Gordon also said he thought University police “definitely overreacted” at the sit-in.

Several people were charged with obstructing the legal process after the protest. Police sprayed Mace at a student who was charged with obstruction.

Hestness said law enforcement reaction to student activism is “very situation-specific.”

“If we have a large demonstration where there’s a potential for arrests we prepare for it and work with the sheriff and the Minneapolis Police Department,” he said.

Student protests have been a much bigger issue on campus in the past, Hestness said.

“I was a student here in the early ’70s when there was a lot of protesting going on,” he said. “Students once occupied Morrill Hall and Washington Avenue for several days.”

He said the areas were reclaimed by Minneapolis police, resulting in many arrests.

Other colleges in the Midwest have also seen student protests.

Other institutions

Thomas Baker, associate dean of students at the University of Iowa, said his school encourages students to protest.

“We do everything we can to encourage students to protest consistent with the Constitution, but not to cross the line and violate the rights of other people,” he said.

Baker said the University of Iowa’s policy ensures First Amendment rights are protected but also takes action if protesters become violent, damage property or disrupt classes.

Baker said the extent of disciplinary action varies, but if the transgression is a first offense, students often get a second chance.

“We’ve had a lot of protests, and we’ve had very well-organized protests,” he said. “It’s been several years since there’s been an arrest made in relation to a protest.”

Lori Berquam, the University of Wisconsin-Madison interim dean of students, said her school rarely has trouble with protests.

“I think protesting is a good, intellectual way of engaging our students with political or global events,” she said. “The only expectation that we have is that students don’t disrupt classes or the normal order of business.”

She said the only recent issue with protesters was an anti-war demonstration two years ago when police used pepper spray.

“But that was off-campus, and the people participating in the protest weren’t all students,” she said.

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