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Quote from President Burwell overlaid on photo of students protesting

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Robb Hill/The Washington Post/Getty Images | Celal Gunes/Anadolu/Getty Images

American University administrators have banned all indoor protests in a move they say is intended to promote inclusivity and signal a clear intolerance of antisemitism on campus.  

Sylvia Burwell, the university’s president, said in a Jan. 25 letter to the campus that the decision was made in response to “recent events and incidents on campus [that] have made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.”

She explained that the incidents necessitated unequivocal measures.

“When our students’ safety, their sense of belonging, or their connection to our community are disrupted by discrimination or hateful behavior, we are committed to taking swift action to support them and address the problem, “ she wrote.

The protest ban comes on the heels of a complaint filed by multiple Jewish advocacy groups to the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, asserting that the Washington, D.C., institution is a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students.

State and federal lawmakers have also been ramping up their scrutiny and criticisms of higher education leaders’ handling of antisemitism on their campuses since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas. The additional oversight has prompted some college presidents and other top administrators to be proactive by adopting or strengthening campus speech and protest policies and taking extra steps to protect and express support for Jewish students. The related ousters of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania have undoubtedly been instructive.

Just two weeks ago, American announced curriculum changes to address antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate and bigotry. The university also introduced new training opportunities, through its Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, for students and faculty to learn how to facilitate in-class discussions in contentious times.

Although Burwell’s letter does not provide a clear explanation of what qualifies as a protest, it states that any students, staff or faculty members who violate the new policy “are subject to disciplinary action.”

The new policy also requires clubs and organizations to be “welcoming to all students” and that posters displayed around the campus and university-sponsored events “promote inclusivity.” These new rules will be in effect at least through the end of the spring semester, at which point they will be reassessed, according to the letter.

A Suppression of Free Expression

The university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement in response to the new policy on Jan. 29, saying it was adopted “without a transparent process, faculty input, or meaningful community discussion of alternatives” and that it will have “the effect of suppressing and chilling expression.”

The statement also said the policy “is rife with vague and subjective terms” and gives administrators the ability to punish students under their own self-determined standards of what qualifies as “welcoming.”

“If a student wears a black armband, a historic symbol of student antiwar protest, to class, will the Administration punish the student?” it asks. “What if a student group collectively decides to wear symbols, statements, or depictions of a flag on a given day?”

Matt Bennett, American’s vice president and chief communications officer, declined to define what exactly qualifies as a protest. He said the guidelines laid out in the president’s letter align with the university’s broader freedom of expression policy, established in 2022 “as a collaborative exercise of faculty and staff and students, all members of the community.”

“This is about establishing time, place and manner of protests on campus,” he said, noting that the free expression policy has always allowed for such constraints. “Our teams will work with our community to address situations that may arise and apply the policy as we always have.”

Bennett said he understands some of the concerns about the protest ban, but there were “issues happening on campus” that needed immediate response.

“Our first priority is the safety and well-being of the community. And we need to take action to make sure that we are supporting that,” he said. “We can have dialogue; we can look forward together about how we move forward as we review these actions at the conclusion of the semester.”

The AAUP chapter contends that even if administrators clarified “protest” to mean only in-person gatherings for the purpose of dissent, it would still suppress “good-faith civic engagement.”

The faculty organization said it is committed to fighting bias and harassment on campus but that doing so should not come at the cost of limiting free speech.

“This new policy neither meaningfully advances equity nor creates accountability for bad actors; rather it makes all students less free in service of dampening political discourse,” the statement says. It “threatens the core functions of this university: inquiry and good-faith dialogue.”

PEN America, a free expression advocacy group, also voiced disapproval of the new policy.

“Clamping down on free expression in the name of inclusion is an insult to both ideals,” Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education, said in a statement. “Bans on all protests inside all buildings … will serve no purpose other than to limit the terms of open discourse at a time when dialogue is more important than ever.”

Pamela S. Nadell, director of the university’s Jewish studies program, praised the new policy in an email, saying that when protests “disrupt our educational mission,” that “curtails free speech.”

“Our new policy boldly achieves two goals. It enables the university to permit free speech in the public square and carry on with our mission of teaching and scholarship,” Nadell wrote.

According to an Instagram post by the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a large group of students, faculty and staff marched on campus on Jan. 26 and demanded that Burwell and other members of her administration support Palestinian students and acknowledge “the ongoing genocide happening in Palestine.”

“President Burwell not only continues to neglect her Palestinian students and allies, but actively suppresses our voices and freedom of speech,” the post reads. “We will NEVER be silenced.”

The student government also took issues with Burwell’s letter, saying the policy “interferes with our rights as students and Americans” and contradicts the university’s tradition of “student activism, political participation, accepting challenges, and holding a change-making spirit.”

“As the Student Government of American University our role is to ensure that ALL students feel safe and represented on campus,” the executive board wrote in an email. “We have to address all hate crimes facing our student body right now, including BOTH Antisemitism and Islamophobia. Our Student Government will not address one issue without the other.”

Harvard Holds Similar Protocol

Harvard University also recently reminded its campus of a similar policy banning indoor protests. The policy, which was outlined in a new document titled “Guidance on Protest and Dissent,” did not add any new rules, but it emphasized and clarified that protests or other forms of dissent are not permitted in classrooms, libraries, dormitories or dining halls.

Unlike American’s new statement, Harvard’s guidelines allow the leaders of the individual schools to make “explicit exceptions.”

John K. Wilson, co-editor of the AAUP’s “Academe” blog and a former fellow at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, wrote in a recent blog post that although colleges can restrict and punish “certain kinds of protests,” they should never ban protests themselves.

He noted that as a private university, Harvard is not legally obligated to protect free speech, but it is “morally obligated to strive to be among the best universities at free speech” if it wants to maintain its status as a respected institution.

“The fact that Harvard’s top officials fail to make this fundamental distinction suggests that their goal is not to prevent disruption but to silence protest,” he added. “Harvard is under tremendous pressure from wealthy donors and powerful politicians to censor criticism of Israel. But that’s no excuse for violating the rights of everyone in its community.”

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