US Universities Should Respect Right to Protest

    Pro-Palestine university campus protests have spread across the United States, with harsh crackdowns at some institutions, including Columbia University, the University of Texas, and Emory University. These include mass suspensions, evictions from university housing, and arrests of students, faculty, legal observers, and journalists covering these events.

    Columbia University students set up tents on campus on April 17 to express solidarity with the Palestinian people. Student groups said they were protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which has killed over 34,000 people and left well over a million displaced and starving. Protesters also demanded that the university divest holdings in companies profiting from the assault on Gaza and Israel’s unlawful settlements in the occupied West Bank.

    Also on April 17, Columbia’s President Minouche Shafik testified at a congressional hearing on antisemitism. On April 18, she suspended the protesters, revoking their access to campus. In a letter to the New York Police Department, Shafik said Columbia “provided multiple notices and warnings and informed the encampment participants that they must disperse or face immediate discipline.” Shafik said the protesters were violating Columbia’s rules and policies, and raised safety concerns. She said the encampment posed a “clear and present danger” and asked the police to help remove the protesters.

    The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, 54 members of Columbia Law School’s permanent faculty, and the Knight First Amendment Institute, among others, criticized Shafik’s decisions, with the Knight Institute condemning the “alarming decision to call on the NYPD to dismantle a student encampment.”

    The university previously suspended Columbia’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, after administrators claimed the groups “repeatedly violated University policies related to holding campus events.” In response, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the organization Palestine Legal filed a lawsuit in March against the university for its “unlawful suspension” of these groups for “engaging in peaceful protest.”

    Shafik told the US Congress that Columbia updated policies and procedures to address rising antisemitism on campus. She described as a central challenge “[t]rying to reconcile the free speech rights of those who want to protest and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of harassment or discrimination.”  

    There have been troubling reports of antisemitic incidents in and around Columbia University’s campus. Allegations of antisemitic acts and speech by individuals, as well as acts of Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination, should be investigated and addressed on the merits in a case-by-case basis, through fair and transparent processes.

    As protests spread to campuses across the country, university administrations should be careful not to mislabel criticism of Israeli government policies or advocacy for Palestinian rights as inherently antisemitic or to misuse university authority to quash peaceful protest. Instead, universities should safeguard people’s rights to assembly and free expression.

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