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US campus chaos is not a free speech issue

A Columbia student exercises their right to peaceful protest. Credit: Getty

May 3, 2024 - 3:00pm

The recent swathe of pro-Palestine encampments on US college campuses has created a rhetorical minefield for ongoing debates around freedom of speech. Determined to push the boundaries of what is acceptable, protesters have engaged in vandalism, harassment and intimidation — all while insisting that their detractors are infringing on their right to free expression. University leaders shouldn’t be tricked by this bait-and-switch: conduct is not speech, and universities have no obligation to allow students to run roughshod over campus in the name of free expression. But instead of enforcing the rules quickly and consistently, university leaders have emboldened protesters by failing to draw clear boundaries.

The current wave of protests started at Columbia University, the same day as university president Minouche Shafik’s testimony to Congress on campus antisemitism. Students set up unauthorised encampments as part of a protest against Columbia’s supposed investment in Israeli companies. Soon after, students on other campuses followed suit with similar demands and methods. While there was an initial bout of police responses, many encampments were re-established and university leadership seemed to back off. Since then, protestors at these encampments have vandalised university property, smashed windows, and scuffled with the police.

Tolerating these illegal encampments is not a principled defence of free speech. It’s a cowardly appeasement of a mob that threatens civil discourse on campus.

When university leaders vacillate on their response to the encampments, they mislead faculty and students on their rights. Free speech encompasses the right to peacefully protest, but even public universities may impose time, place, and manner restrictions on this right. For instance, a loud protest outside of a residential building at 2am should not be allowed. Taking over buildings and blocking pathways without authorisation are also disruptive methods of protest that should not be allowed. None of these restrictions infringe on freedom of speech: protesters can choose to deliver the exact same message in an authorised manner.

Hesitating to enforce restrictions that are already on the books, however, emboldens those who wish to exploit this confusion about free speech rights. Protesters invoke the seriousness of their cause to justify their extreme behaviour. University leadership must ignore this: for the rules to be fair, they must be content-neutral.

I saw firsthand how things can spiral out of control when administrators fail to send a clear message about what is not allowed. When I attended the demonstrations at the University of Pennsylvania a day after they began, the environment was relatively tame compared to Columbia. Rules had already been broken: protesters had vandalised a statue, and they had set up an encampment. The school failed to take serious action other than cleaning up the statue, probably hoping that nothing worse would happen.

Since Thursday, the situation has escalated. Gates now block off the encampment. Students received multiple warnings throughout the day from public safety officials to avoid the immediate area of the encampment. Protesters reclaimed the previously vandalised statue. And now the university is begging the local police department to step in.

There is a better way to handle these protests: inform students about the boundaries of what is allowed, and consistently enforce the rules. Pomona College president Gabrielle Starr immediately suspended and arrested students who rushed into her office. The University of Florida clearly delineated what kind of conduct it would not tolerate, such as camping and violence. It also discussed acceptable activities including verbal and written expression. The University of Chicago acted similarly, going so far as to provide students with examples of acceptable protests.

Appeasing the mob only emboldens bad actors, often leading to violence. But by drawing clear and consistent boundaries, universities can maintain a healthy, pro-free speech environment on campus.


Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor. 

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
16 days ago

I think the author is missing something here. University faculty and administrators support the cause and think students are righteous warriors fighting oppression. They are reluctant to act because they don’t want to.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
16 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Jimbo, please remind us of your position on the Ottawa “truckers” occupation of that city.

T Bone
T Bone
16 days ago

Were you for or against the truckers, CS?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
16 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

What do you think?

Ian_S
Ian_S
16 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

CS is a classist. He’s against anything working class. In that he’s with the bouffant pansy, Trudeau.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
16 days ago

Totally supported the truckers. Of course their protest took place on public property in Ottawa designated for actual protests. There have been dozens of climate and BLM protests in the exact same spot. The truckers didn’t break anything, they didn’t prevent anyone from freely moving around the area and they actually gave out free food and set up bouncy castles. Unlike the college protests where they have been coddled and mollified by school administrators, Trudeau refused to meet with the truckers. There will be zero consequences for the students. They will become heroes on campus, not only by students, but faculty and staff. Meanwhile, the truckers are still facing prosecution in the courts nearly three years later.

I didn’t support the border protests at all. The truckers at those locations were disrupting the flow of goods between Canada and the U.S. and needed to be shut down.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
16 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

You think that the streets of central Ottawa are designated to be completely blocked for a month? Seriously?
You think the citizens of central Ottawa deserved to have their lives disrupted for a month by these so-called truckers? What would you say if an unauthorized protest “convoy” parked outside your house and honked their horns continuously for a moth, night and day?
Why would Trudeau go meet with people who were criminally occupying the streets of the nations capital? People who wanted to overthrow the government and set themselves up as a new government? They should count themselves lucky that they aren’t all in jail
“I do not accept the organizers’ descriptions of the protest in Ottawa as lawful, calm, peaceful or something resembling a celebration,” wrote Justice Paul Rouleau, the judge who led the inquiry.
Bit of a double standard for you there, eh, Jimmy?!?!

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
16 days ago

Meh. Fever dreams from someone who sees right wing extremists lurking behind every corner, while the left wing antisemites wave their flags in your face.

The truckers were charged with mischief. You know who gets charged with mischief? High school kids pulling Halloween pranks. Not radical protestors threatening to overturn the govt.

Trudeau didn’t meet with the truckers, but he did manage to meet with armed native protestors blocking railroad lines across the country two years earlier. The very day he put the boot to truckers with the Emergency Act, eco terrorists caused $2 mill in damage by attacking a workers camp, even shooting a flare gun at workers hiding out in a pickup truck.

The truckers did not prevent one single person, car or emergency vehicle from getting to their destination. Not one single window was broken. Not one single person was threatened. They stopped blowing their horns a couple days after they arrived.

The truckers love their country. Organizers paid a heavy price, but almost every restriction was lifted in Canada within weeks. The cosplay college kids hate their country. They will be treated like rock stars by staff and faculty. Their protests will accomplish nothing.

I’m proud to align myself with the truckers. I’m sure you’re proud too.

Darlene Craig
Darlene Craig
16 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The truckers and others in Ottawa were protesting something that was damaging their OWN daily lives and the country they live in. I’m not sure what the motives are on these campuses. I have more sympathy for people speaking about their own lives.

Terry M
Terry M
16 days ago

As I recall, the truckers simply drove around, blocking some traffic and slowing commutes. They did not vandalize property, occupy private offices/buildings, construct ‘walls’ on property, camp overnight, throw bottles and trash at police, did not use lasers to blind police, did not leave a huge mess in their wake, and did not intimidate Jews or other groups of people with hateful and threatening chants.
A bit different, no?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
15 days ago
Reply to  Terry M

Your recollection is comically wrong, old boy

John Tyler
John Tyler
16 days ago

The last thing either Islamists, far-lefties or identity warriors want is free speech!

William Brand
William Brand
16 days ago

The problem is that the college administration is composed of WOKE democrats who mostly agree with the demonstrators. In addition, the Federal government is unable to intervene due to Biden being controlled by Woke democrats who want to destroy Israel. If Kamala Harris becomes president those demonstrators will become the controllers of the government. America has also allowed the immigration of Palestinian Moslems who make up a large part of the demonstrators. Moslem countries won’t allow them to come to their nations for fear that they will murder their hosts, but America has allowed them to immigrate. Today they are attacking America. In addition, we are experiencing a fulfillment of the book of Revelations 13.3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. The fatal wound was when Hitler shot himself at the end of WWII. The resurrection was when Elite Woke Democrats made antisemitism acceptable with cries to genocide the Jews. We are in the last days before the 7-year rule of the Antichrist and the rapture of the church. The Woke crowd is preparing the way for Antichrist rule as the people follow after the beast as they cry “From the river to the sea”.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
16 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

Have you considered seeking mental health help? These are the rantings of a very deluded mind.

Ian_S
Ian_S
16 days ago

Sadly, CS, all you have is ad-homs and an air of deep bitterness.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
16 days ago

I don’t mean to sound racist, but before the students began wrapping scarves around their faces to hide their identities, I noticed that at least half of them were Middle Eastern. And I think more Middle Eastern outsiders have infiltrated the protests. How else would students know what to chant (from the river to the sea) when I’m willing to bet they can’t find Israel on a map. They have been rightly accused of being anti-Semites, but I don’t think they really know what the chants mean. They just know that they are righteous and protests are fun. I have always been against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians (illegal settlers who take over Palestinian land, mostly from farmers). But those are government policies. Protest against those, not the very existence of Jews.

Nancy G
Nancy G
16 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yes, protests can be fun, especially when they take place in the spring. New York City is cold in the winter; there weren’t any encampments then.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
16 days ago

I watched Biden pontificating about this. Kamala bailing activists involved in the ‘mainly peaceful’ BLM protests, that killed 25 and caused $2bn damage, came to mind.

Johan Grönwall
Johan Grönwall
16 days ago

Protests has spread to France and soon the whole of Europe will do the copy cat dance. Problem is that we house so many more muslims than the USA, willing to give a helping hand to the campus protesters. And they don’t shy away from violence.

But then again: maybe it must come to some sort of conclusion. We can’t go on having a contingent of people ready to murder us all.

Ian_S
Ian_S
16 days ago

“… university leaders have emboldened protesters by failing to draw clear boundaries.”

Sounds like they need to send in Supernanny to sort them out. We are after all dealing with childish people here.

Anyway, it was only last year or so that smirkingly self-aggrandizing Guardianistas were chortling about “freeze peach” (lol lol lol), at that stage said to be a conspiratorial obsession of the far right.

Saul D
Saul D
16 days ago

I don’t have a problem with the campus protests so long as they aren’t violent and have minimal damage to property. The protestors highlight a cause to the public, and if the cause has popular appeal, the protests would extend and eventually there would be political change.
There are, though, limits on public patience. Having made the protest, and then finding low public support, the public will expect the protest to be closed down. The point was made, it didn’t get widespread agreement, so the protest simply turns into an annoyance when ongoing protest can be treated as a public nuisance.
The more the protests go on, residual support will dwindle away, so it’s in the protestors’ interest to stop before they harm their cause. In many of the en vogue causes like Just Stop Oil, CHAZ, and here on Palestine, the protests haven’t sparked mass support, have gone on too long and harmed their causes. Free speech principles allows the initial protest, but once that speech has been made and no new voices are joining, authorities can also say “you’ve had your protest now” and close it down on time and nuisance grounds.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
15 days ago
Reply to  Saul D

I don’t think these protesters want to express their views and see whether others agree. I think they want to bully others, in particular college administrators. This is why they persist despite a lack of popular support– it’s beside the point.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
17 days ago

What we are seeing is universities having to act like daycare facilities for small children.
I am used to hearing my friends saying to their toddlers and young children: “OK, you are allowed to do X, but if you go too far, then you can’t do anything at all/you will be punished”.
Universities should not have to be teaching fully grown adults this lesson.

John Tyler
John Tyler
17 days ago

As always, appeasement just makes matters worse. Believing the university authorities will continue to make concessions the ‘protesters’ simply ask for more, more, more. Clear rules, unequivocally setting expectations, should be applied to university left-wing zealots and their naïve followers the same as the rest of society. Smash a window? Arrest! Scream for Jewish extermination? Arrest! Block legal access? Arrest! And after arrest, expulsion.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
16 days ago
Reply to  John Tyler

Arrest, conviction, expulsion and repeat. A few of these “righteous” hooligans’ getting fines, convictions and jail time would cool things down.

Nancy G
Nancy G
16 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

It takes children a while to learn that bad behaviour has consequences…