Students must have the right to peaceful protest on their campuses

Dear Editor,
Ivy League universities across the United States are on edge amid arrests of pro-Palestinian demonstrators this past week and mounting tension between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters over the war in Gaza. Columbia University has been thrust into turmoil in the last week, reeling from a congressional hearing on antisemitism with President Nemat Shafik and NYPD’s arrest of more than 100 protesters in support of Palestinians on Columbia University’s lawn, including Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Ilhan Omar, a Democrat in the United States House of Representatives. During a news conference following the arrests, the NYPD Commissioner, Edward Caban, said: “The students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say.”
The Ivy League school’s lush campus on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is known for many things. It’s where the popular TV show “Gossip Girl” was often filmed. It’s where Barack Obama finished his bachelor’s degree and Hilary Clinton is now a professor. And now, this past Monday in an unprecedented power move, Columbia University witnessed a massive faculty walkout, where educators condemned the institution for calling the Police on student protesters.
On the Yale University campus, authorities arrested 47 protesters on Monday, the university said in a statement. Although, the students who were arrested have been referred for disciplinary action, the encampment at Yale has continued since Friday, with protesters demanding that Yale divest from military weapons manufacturers.
Several protesters were also arrested from NYU following an encampment organised by the NYU Palestine Solidarity Coalition. The NYU Alumni for Palestine website details a list of demands in an open letter to NYU’s leadership which was signed by 2410 alumni calling on NYU leadership to shut down NYU’s Tel Aviv campus which “bars Palestinian students, faculty and affiliates from accessing academic opportunities at the site because of their ethnicity”, contradicting “NYU’s principles of academic freedom and egalitarianism”. Additionally, the letter calls on leadership to re-evaluate the involvement of NYU, particularly its Tandon School of Engineering, in arms research and development, and to cease collaboration with arms manufacturers.
Inspired by protests at Columbia University, pro-Palestinian camps have been set up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and Emerson College. At MIT, protesters also have asked the university to stop what they say is funding from the Ministry of Defence in Israel to university projects with military objectives.
Students at Brown, Princeton and Northwestern held protests on Friday and over the weekend.
Other institutions that saw protest actions included Boston University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Last week, the University of Southern California faced intense backlash after it cancelled the valedictorian speech of a Muslim student, Asna Tabassum. While the university cited security concerns for cancelling the speech, Ms Tabassum, a biomedical engineering major, said in a statement that she was “shocked” and “profoundly disappointed” by the decision. And she questioned the school’s motivation. After the decision to cancel her speech, the administration has faced several days of protests calling for Ms Tabassum’s reinstatement as a speaker.
If the university can accommodate speeches by Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos and host President Obama and the King of Jordan at its graduations, surely it can bear whatever burden comes with celebrating Asna Tabassum as its valedictorian.
It is concerning that schools might decline to select a qualified visibly Muslim student who advocates for Palestine, to avoid what happened at USC. Schools are going to do more harm than good if they try to censor and silence commencement speakers, and especially students who have received the honour of speaking at their graduation ceremonies.
These protests take place at a sensitive time on campuses, which have seen widespread protests, largely calling for ceasefire and divestment, over the last few months.
Throughout history, wars have begun and ended. Leave our educational institutions alone. Were we to join together in working toward a peaceful resolution to the slaughter and famine in Gaza, I can almost promise you: the rancour, the unrest, the division in academia is not a permanent situation that anyone expects or desires to perpetuate. It’s not conducive to learning.
Colleges and universities have long been hotbeds for activism, playing an important role in shaping public sentiment on controversial issues. University students should be supported and not prevented from participating in activism. Instead of punishing students for living up to the responsibility cast aside by leaders and lawmakers, they should be applauded.
Students must have the right to peaceful protest on their campuses. Let’s not forget that student-led protests and campaigns played a key role in supporting Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. It is this resurgent student protest movement, on issues ranging from fees and cuts to fossil fuel divestment and workers’ rights, which is now under threat.
The increasingly harsh and violent policing and intimidation tactics from campus security services, the punitive suspensions, bizarre bail conditions and mass arrests students have faced in recent weeks represent a complete lack of foresight from university managers and serve only to recruit more students to their causes.
Students want better representation of their views throughout their institutional structures and are willing to engage positively and constructively to this end. Instead of seeking to suppress this critical engagement with the key issues of our time – vice-chancellors should welcome and encourage their input. After all, isn’t that what their institutions were founded to do?