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students protesting

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas war at campuses across the country have been subject to harsher penalties from their colleges’ administrations.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images | Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images | Paul Hennesy/Anadolu/Getty Images | Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

As college and university presidents face growing backlash from state and federal lawmakers for their responses to student protests against the war between Israel and Hamas, higher education leaders are cracking down on student demonstrations—particularly those that support Palestinian people.

In the last week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology became one of several institutions that have suspended student groups for violations of campus protest rules, and Stanford University threatened to take disciplinary action against students who occupied a campus plaza for nearly four months.

Institutions across the country have taken steps to more clearly outline or strengthen policies about when, where and how students can express their views in the wake of protests that have rocked campuses. Although administrators say the restrictions align with pre-existing university regulations that ensure campus safety and mitigate hate speech, free speech advocates are concerned and urging universities to uphold their obligation to protect students’ rights of expression.

Zach Greenberg, senior program officer of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a First Amendment advocacy group, said colleges have struggled to identify the line between free speech and conduct such as harassment or disrupting classes.

“As a result, they’re cracking down on free speech and they’re censoring protesters,” he said, adding that college administrators’ recent efforts to rein in student protests restrict “a wide array of expressions protected under free speech standards.”

Although the question of how to respond to student protests has long been the subject of sometimes-heated debates on campuses, Greenberg said colleges haven’t seen protests of this scale in several decades.

“There’s very few issues that kind of reached the social, economic, religious, political balances of this issue,” he said of the war. “It makes sense that colleges would respond back with cracking down on protests and free speech, but on the other hand, they have an obligation to do something that protects free speech.”

Tabatha Abu El-Haj, a professor of law at Drexel University, believes the increased restrictions on protests are a response to lawmakers’ scorn for colleges and universities and the administrators who run them.

“There is clearly a trend toward cracking down on student protests by pulling out the rule book, and it is going to get worse as more universities receive congressional subpoenas,” Abu El-Haj said in reference to House Republicans’ recent demand for documents from Harvard University. “In my view, these subpoenas, from a party with known ties to antisemites, are more about the November election than any actual rise in antisemitism on campus, and the students will pay the price.”

‘Silenced’ Voices

At MIT last week, administrators made clear that violating rules on campus demonstrations would carry consequences. They suspended a student group, Coalition Against Apartheid, after the group held a demonstration the night of Feb. 12 that officials said didn’t follow “normal permission processes.” As a result, the group can no longer use university facilities or reserve campus space for activities or functions, won’t receive university funding, and can’t organize future protests on campus.

“I want to be clear that suspending the CAA is not related to the content of their speech,” MIT president Sally Kornbluth said in a video message to the campus. “I fully support the right of everyone on our campus to express their views.”

Kornbluth was one of three campus presidents who took part in a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism in December. The three were widely criticized for failing to clearly state that calling for the genocide of Jews violated campus policies, and the presidents of Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania resigned in the aftermath.

The Coalition Against Apartheid responded to the suspension with a statement calling for its reinstatement that was signed by at least 130 organizations, including student, alumni and faculty groups across the country. The group alleged that 13 members received sanction letters threatening them with suspensions from the university.

“For over four months, the MIT administration has continued to silence our voices by applying unjust punitive measures to our actions,” the statement read. “We have held peaceful protest after peaceful protest in response to the genocide perpetrated by the Israeli occupation in Palestine.”

Prahlad Iyengar, a first-year graduate student and CAA executive member, said the protest was in response to unfolding events, so the group didn’t have time to adhere to the university’s three-day registration process for campus events. He said the group did, however, notify the university the day it decided to rally.

The group’s suspension felt “sort of like a slap in the face a little bit,” Iyengar said. “We tried to … uphold our end of the bargain. We tried to establish communication about this.”

MIT suspended several students in November after a group opposing the war occupied a campus building for hours and clashed with counterprotesters. University officials eventually cleared the building’s lobby of demonstrators out of concern that the conflict could escalate to violence.

Kornbluth said in her video message that “there is a difference between what we can say—that is, what we have a right to say—and what we should say.”

“It is, for example, legitimate to criticize the policies of any government, including the current government of Israel—as indeed many Israelis do,” she said. “But as members of one community, we shouldn’t feel it’s OK to vilify and shun Israeli and Jewish members of our community. Equally, we shouldn’t feel it’s OK to vilify everyone who advocates for the Palestinian people as ‘supporting Hamas.’”

‘A Massive Concession’

In some cases where colleges have toughened their policies and responses to student actions, student organizations have been disbanded and prohibited from operating on campus. In other cases, the student groups are caving to the pressure being put on them by college administrators.

A student sit-in at Stanford, which turned into a 120-day stalemate between university administrators and pro-Palestine student protesters, came to an end Friday night as the group vacated a campus plaza where they had staged a “Sit-In to Stop Genocide.”

Stanford officials hand-delivered a letter to the students on Feb. 8 giving the group 12 hours to pack up their belongings and end what had become the longest protest in the university’s history. University policy prohibits students from camping out on campus overnight, but officials didn’t enforce that rule “out of a desire to support the peaceful expression of free speech,” according to a Stanford statement. That stance changed as officials grew concerned about the physical safety of campus community members.

The students did not immediately comply, but they agreed to end the sit-in after university administrators wrote a second letter offering to meet with them to discuss their concerns if they agreed to vacate the plaza regardless of the meeting’s results.

The student group had originally said it would not end its protests until the university explicitly called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, among other things, but the group’s representatives said in a statement that the accord “represents a massive concession.”

The agreement went “far beyond what should be required to simply have a seat at the table. But it is a concession we are willing to make if it puts us on a path towards realizing our demands,” the group wrote in its statement. “We are offering a huge token of good faith in these discussions by agreeing to end the Sit-In on Friday. We expect that President Saller and Provost Martinez will meet us in such.”

But Joshua Jankelow, the student leader for the Stanford chapter of Olami’s zero tolerance for antisemitism campaign, views the sit-in differently. He says it has included calls for genocide of Jews in Israel, among other things.

“There can be zero tolerance for antisemitism at Stanford, and that must begin with the administration,” Jankelow said in an email statement. “The latest developments along with the administration offering immunity to the sit-in’s organizers in exchange for simply following university policies have sent a message that unlawful behavior will be rewarded, as long as it continues for long enough.”

University officials declined to provide any comment beyond a statement that said they were “pleased that students representing the Sit-In to Stop Genocide have agreed to end overnight camping.”

Refusal to Be Ignored

Such détente has not been reached at other campuses, such as Brown University, where tensions between students and administrators are also rising. A group of 19 Brown students participating in “Hunger Strike for Palestine” allege that university officials have removed “memorial flags” and washed away chalk messages from the sites of recent gatherings as they urged the university to divest its endowment from arms manufacturers.

The students ended their weeklong hunger strike last week after university officials refused to consider their demands. Brown president Christina Paxson said “the bar for divestment is very high” and that the university “rejects calls to use the endowment as a tool for political advocacy on contested issues.”

Ariela Rosenzweig, a Jewish student at Brown who was part of the hunger strike, told The Providence Journal that the students plan to keep fighting.

“As a community, we have made sure that we cannot be ignored,” she said.

University spokesperson Brian E. Clark confirmed the university erased a chalked statement by the student group in one instance and removed “visual displays” from campus green spaces in a few instances. He said those steps were taken in accordance with pre-existing university policies.

“Any of the actions we’ve taken in regard to protests in recent months have nothing to do with the content,” Clark said. “It’s really about the kind of boundaries of protest and demonstration on campus. And we’ve been consistent in that.”

This is not the first time Brown has restricted student activism in response to the Israel-Hamas war. More than 40 students who participated in two separate peaceful sit-ins on campus last fall were arrested for trespassing when the protest went beyond the normal business hours of University Hall, which houses the offices of senior administrators. Those students were arraigned Feb. 12 and 14 and pleaded not guilty.

But Clark said neither the students’ arrest nor the recent removal of visual displays were done to hamper or stop students’ ability to protest and that it has been “incredibly frustrating” for the university to be characterized as cracking down on student protests.

“The reality is that we have staff at the university who are working with students to find the right ways to express what they want to express, regardless of their position,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s the battle between administrators and protesters on what can and can’t happen that sometimes we see depicted.”

Sara Weissman and Katherine Knott contributed to this report.

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