Los Angeles - A UC Irvine junior studying in France, and hundreds of her current and future classmates, can now participate in demonstrations abroad without risking disciplinary action.

The University of California has clarified that its study abroad policy does not bar students from participating in political demonstrations while abroad after a student raised concerns that the policy violated the First Amendment.

After citing an interest in activism in her application essay, Kathlyn Henderson, a 21-year-old English major at the University of California at Irvine, was sternly warned before she departed for her junior year in Lyon, France that she was not allowed to protest or participate in any political events while abroad. A university official told her she could be subject to disciplinary action if she violated the policy.

Fearing the school would rescind her invitation to study abroad she did not protest the email. But while in France she learned many students had similar experiences and were forced to lie about their activities in order to comply with the UC system's blanket policy on demonstrations, which prompted her to seek help from the ACLU. ACLU staff attorneys in turn sent a letter to UC asserting the policy violated the First Amendment and threatening legal action if the policy was not changed.

"I chose to study abroad in order to expose myself to another culture and to experience a perspective other than my own," said Kathyln Henderson, who just started her second semester in France. "Whether political protest is part of that experience is a decision that I should make, I don't believe it is or should ever be the University's decision."

The new policy makes clear that there is no wholesale ban on participation in protests, but specifies that students may not engage in illegal actions. It also advises students to check local laws as they may differ by country, and to leave any demonstration that turns violent and dangerous.

"We were particularly concerned that Kathlyn was threatened with disciplinary action if she engaged in activities that are clearly protected under the First Amendment," said ACLU staff attorney Ahilan T. Arulanantham. "The new policy leaves more room for students to explore all aspects of life in a foreign country, including political life."

Stay informed

ACLU of Southern California is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National