From protests to commencement speakers, what is free speech’s place on a college campus? 

By Kennedy Thomason 

Elm Staff Writer 

Hundreds of students face arrest as colleges and universities crack down on protests surrounding the war in Gaza. What does this say about the integrity of these institutions in upholding our constitutional rights?  

Historically, college campuses are a petri dish for collective action against the issues plaguing American society and international affairs; see the Civil Rights, Vietnam Anti-War, and Black Lives Matter movements. Still, officials on campuses are stifling rather than embracing the use of their space as a hallmark for First Amendment invocation.  

To many, America’s passive approach to Israel’s actions in Gaza presents a moral dilemma. According to Vox, pro-Palestinian activists would like their respective schools to denounce Israel’s excessive force against Palestinian civilians, support an immediate ceasefire, and punish the nation-state by severing all political and financial ties. These demands have unfortunately fallen on deaf ears, causing protestors to up the ante by creating encampments on communal campus spaces.  

Complicating this issue is the threat of antisemitism. Schools such as Columbia University, Yale University, and the University of Southern California cited the potential for increased antisemitic rhetoric and violence as a reason to take measures against these rallies and encampments. Those speaking out against the uptick in antisemitism are right; there is no place for it anywhere, let alone on college campuses, which are supposed to be safe havens for people of all backgrounds.  

Administrations must swiftly address those found to be spreading this kind of hate. However, the sentiment that all pro-Palestinian protests are inherently antisemitic is a fiction that far too many school officials are falling for. USC went as far as to bar its valedictorian from speaking due to her pro-Palestinian activism. Then, the university canceled its commencement ceremony altogether due to backlash and safety concerns. Columbia moved all of its classes to an online or hybrid model for the rest of the semester, and Harvard University closed Harvard Yard to all students.  

 According to Vox, protestors feel that a few bad antisemitic apples — and baseless claims — are causing their freedom of expression to be more heavily policed than that of any other group. Former President of Brandeis University Frederick Lawrence condemns the universities, such as Columbia and Yale, who involved local law enforcement to stop the protests, resulting in numerous arrests. He told Vox that “schools should see calling the police to enforce any such policies as a last resort.”  

Even if their intentions are pure, institutions are jumping the gun with such policies and practices. Punishing peaceful protestors is never a good idea, let alone on a college campus where activism has always been a staple. All Americans theoretically possess the celebrated right to practice free speech and expression with the exception of hate speech — why is it any different when applied here?  

According to USA Today, “California law requires private, secular colleges and universities to give students the same speech rights they’d have at the state’s public institutions.” Perhaps USC did not get the memo.  

Students at Washington College should remain aware of the conflict on these campuses. While the end of the semester is a busy season for everyone, staying on top of updates from reliable news sources is important. Just because we do not have encampments or police in riot gear in Martha Washington Square does not mean we do not have skin in the game. We can also provide support by helping spread awareness of the protesting students’ experiences. From afar, it may seem like we cannot help, but sharing social media posts, signing petitions, speaking out, and educating friends and family members about the implications of universities encroaching on students’ rights is vital to protecting our own freedom of speech.  

This erosion of our constitutional right to protest sets a dangerous precedent that schools can dictate which issues can be protested and which cannot, which voices are uplifted and which are stomped out. American colleges and universities are showing their allegiance to financial and political gain over the rights of their students by attempting to dictate the bounds of student advocacy. We must continue to call them out.  

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo caption: Columbia University’s students were among many nationwide that set up encampments nationwide in protest of American and university engagements with Israel.

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