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Student Protests and Freedom of Speech on University Campuses

26/04/24

Recent events at Columbia University have ignited a series of student protests across the United States, with significant implications for freedom of speech and academic policy. Last week, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik’s decision to involve the NYPD, which resulted in the arrest of dozens of students at a protest encampment, has not only intensified these protests but also highlighted broader societal and political reactions. [1]

 

Arrests and Responses Across Universities

Following the NYPD’s intervention at Columbia, similar actions have occurred nationwide, reflecting the growing intensity of university protests across the U.S. At Boston’s Emerson College, the number of students arrested rose to 200 on Wednesday, as reported by local police. The University of Southern California (USC) not only saw 93 arrests but also cancelled its main commencement event scheduled for May due to the unrest. Meanwhile, the University of Texas in Austin reported 34 arrests during peaceful protests. These incidents primarily revolved around students’ calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and demands for universities to divest from companies linked to Israel’s military operations. [2]

Additionally, the situation escalated at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where officers clashed with activists at a protest camp. At Columbia University, the presence of Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was among those arrested, underscored the national significance of these demonstrations. In Washington, D.C., a large march involving hundreds of students and faculty moved from Georgetown to George Washington University.

Elsewhere, President Biden was met with “Genocide Joe” protest signs during an official event in Syracuse, New York, highlighting the widespread discontent and the pivotal role of these protests in drawing attention to the Gaza conflict. Notably, the protests at Columbia were particularly intense, serving as a focal point for national attention, with over 100 students, faculty, and other participants initially arrested, and more than 140 arrests occurring at a subsequent protest at New York University’s Manhattan campus.[2]

 

Free Speech Concerns at University of Southern California

Further illustrating the issues surrounding free speech on university campuses is a recent series of events at the University of Southern California (USC). USC faced backlash after cancelling the valedictorian speech of Asna Tabassum, a Muslim student, citing “substantial risks” to campus safety due to unspecified security concerns. This decision was influenced by allegations of antisemitism linked to her social media activity, triggering outrage both from those opposing and supporting her opportunity to speak. Tabassum publicly criticized the university’s decision, telling the LA Times, “The university has betrayed me and succumbed to a campaign of hatred,” positioning herself as a victim of a targeted campaign intended to silence her voice.

Amid these tensions, USC also made the decision to cancel its main commencement ceremony originally scheduled for May 10. The university cited increased security measures and the extensive time required to process the large number of guests as reasons for the cancellation. This decision came in the wake of police confronting protesters and ordering the dismantling of a campus encampment, indicating a heightening of security concerns at USC. These developments add another layer to the ongoing national debate about the balance between campus safety and free speech, further complicating the discourse around academic freedom and the expression of controversial viewpoints. [2]

 

Political Reaction to the Protests

The political response has been varied but vocal. House Speaker Mike Johnson, speaking at Columbia University, called for President Shafik’s resignation over her handling of the protests. In contrast, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized the authorities for their “reckless and dangerous act” of deploying police to these non-violent demonstrations.[1] These political interventions underscore the complex interplay between educational policies, student activism, and governmental oversight.

Adding to the complexities of the debate surrounding free speech on campuses, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statements on Twitter add another layer of international tension. On April 24, Netanyahu denounced the university protests as manifestations of “Antisemitic mobs” that purportedly “call for the annihilation of Israel, attack Jewish students, and faculty,” drawing a controversial parallel to pre-Holocaust Nazi Germany. His call to end what have largely been peaceful protests amplifies the criticisms against the Israeli government’s stance towards dissent.[3]

The American response, characterized by harsh crackdowns on these student protests, casts a starkly ironic light on the situation. It is particularly striking given the U.S. government’s simultaneous support for Israel, a state that has demolished every university in Gaza. This juxtaposition raises poignant questions about the consistency of American foreign policy and domestic civil liberties. The suppression of peaceful protesters by American authorities, under the shadow of such grave allegations against Israel, underscores a deep hypocrisy, challenging the nation’s self-image as a defender of free speech and human rights. This scenario necessitates a critical examination of both the U.S. and Israeli responses to dissent, urging a reassessment of policies that should ideally align with democratic principles and international standards of justice and human rights.

 

Texas Governor Abbott’s Hypocrisy

The stance of Texas Governor Greg Abbott adds a layer of controversy to the discourse on free speech at universities. On April 24, Abbott expressed a strong opposition to the ongoing campus protests through a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, stating that “Arrests being made right now & will continue until the crowd disperses. These protesters belong in jail. Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period. Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.” This definitive stance against the protests raises questions about the application of free speech rights, particularly in light of his previous actions supporting free speech on campuses.[4]

Critics were quick to point out the apparent hypocrisy in Abbott’s recent statements compared to his legislative actions in 2019 when he signed a law aimed at protecting free speech on college campuses. This law guarantees that anyone can protest in common outdoor areas of campuses as long as they are not breaking the law or disrupting the regular functioning of the school. Critics argue that Abbott’s enthusiastic support for this law contrasts sharply with his current calls for the expulsion of students participating in protests, highlighting a selective enforcement of free speech principles that seemingly aligns with political and ideological preferences rather than a consistent application of the law.

 

Conclusion

The escalating student protests across U.S. universities and the responses they have provoked from both university administrations and governmental authorities reflect a troubling disconnect in America’s commitment to its foundational ideals of free speech. This situation is further complicated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent comments, which vehemently criticize the protests as “antisemitic mobs” and liken the campus atmospheres to those preceding the Holocaust. His call to curtail these peaceful demonstrations not only challenges the principles of democratic dissent but also mirrors the contradictions in the actions of the American government.

As the United States continues to support an Israeli state that is committing severe human rights violations and genocide in Gaza, including the destruction of educational institutions, its own domestic suppression of peaceful university protests underscores a profound hypocrisy. This contrast between America’s advocacy for free speech abroad and its actions at home raises significant concerns about the integrity of its democratic values. It invites a critical reassessment of how the nation navigates its policies on free speech, ensuring that these policies genuinely reflect and champion the democratic ethos America purports to uphold. This ongoing crisis calls for a robust dialogue and reevaluation of the alignment between America’s professed ideals and its practical actions, both on the national stage and in the global arena.

 

[1] Dozens arrested in California and Texas as campus administrators move to shut down protests – as it happened. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2024/apr/24/columbia-student-gaza-protests-israel-biden-latest-updates?filterKeyEvents=false&page=with:block-6629822c8f0881afefd55bf5

[2] Why did USC cancel a top student’s graduation speech? [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/world-us-canada-68898923

[3] Netanyahu likens US campus encampments by ‘antisemitic mobs’ to 1930s Nazi Germany [Online] Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-likens-us-campus-encampments-by-antisemitic-mobs-to-1930s-nazi-germany/#

[4] Abbott, G. [@GregAbbott_TX]. (2024, April 24). Arrests being made right now & will continue until the crowd disperses. These protesters belong in jail. Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period. Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/GregAbbott_TX/status/1783237229252346194

Tariq Kurd was born and grew up in Hertfordshire. His family is originally from Halabja, Kurdistan but due to periodic migration currently reside across the Baluchistan region.
He has a BA Hons. in History from the Open University. Besides English, Tariq can speak Baluchi and Brahvi, he is also conversant in Persian and Pashto.
His has an eclectic range of interests including military and tribal history. Tariq lives in London and is currently studying Islamic apologetics through the Sapience Institute.