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As pro-Palestinian protests spread, more university leaders weigh police involvement

A Georgia State Patrol officer detains a protester on the campus of Emory University during a pro-Palestinian demonstration Thursday in Atlanta.
Mike Stewart/AP
A Georgia State Patrol officer detains a protester on the campus of Emory University during a pro-Palestinian demonstration Thursday in Atlanta.

For the second time in a week, police arrested dozens of demonstrators at the University of Texas at Austin protesting Israel's war against Hamas. Protesters chanted for the police to leave, repeating: "We are being peaceful, you are being violent."

The scene at UT-Austin grew tense as campus police and state troopers deployed a chemical irritant to control the crowd. While some students dispersed, others were seen blocking police vans and resisting arrest. University officials said in a statement that the university took swift action to preserve a safe learning environment.

UT-Austin isn't the only school where clashes with law enforcement have escalated. At Emory University in Atlanta last week, police used pepper balls and tasers to control what they described as unruly protesters throwing bottles. Nationwide, there have been hundreds of arrests, including at Columbia University, the University of Southern California and at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Yet other universities have taken a more hands off approach. A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told NPR demonstrations there have been peaceful, though police are monitoring and MIT's president has urged an end to its encampment.

Sometimes the response has shifted even at the same institution. Columbia University initially sent police to quell the protests. University President Minouche Shafik announced on Friday the school has no plans to call police to campus to respond to the demonstrations. On Monday, the university began suspending students who refused to leave a pro-Palestinian encampment by a 2 p.m. deadline. Minouche said officials need to enforce the school's rules and norms.

These vastly different approaches on when to involve police – and when not to – underscore the delicate balance between a desire to protect free speech and keep a college safe and functioning.

Universities can choose how to react

Alex Morey, the director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, says responses vary in part because individual colleges decide how to regulate speech on campus. They outline where students can post flyers, or what time of day protests need to end. Those rules are allowed, as long as they apply to any student group, regardless of the cause, Morey says.

She says many campuses don't allow tent encampments, for instance.

"If I were a college administrator and there was an encampment on my campus and it was not causing disruption, you may as well let it lie if you're going to cause more disruption by removing it. But they do have the right to remove it if they choose to do so," she says.

At the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof says their policy is to avoid police involvement unless it's absolutely necessary.

"Every action has a reaction, and sometimes the reaction is antithetical to what your goals are. Law enforcement is an important resource, but it can also have unintended consequences," he says.

Mogulof says Berkeley's protests have been peaceful so far. He says the school is committed to both free speech and to keeping the university safe and functioning.

"There can be a tension between those objectives," he says. "And the trick is to manage those inherent tensions, the right to freely express your perspective, but also the right to pursue your academic interests."

Other universities are trying to strike a similar balance.

At Northwestern University, officials negotiated an agreement with protesters, making a plan on where students can continue to protest while not breaking the university's rules.

"This agreement represents a sustainable and de-escalated path forward, and enhances the safety of all members of the Northwestern community while providing space for free expression that complies with University rules and policies," university officials wrote in a statement.

A balancing act

But at some universities, that balancing act has become more fraught.

Washington University in St. Louis told NPR in a statement that the university protects free speech, but that right doesn't include activities that disrupt the functions of the university. On Saturday, university officials made the call to arrest 100 people it said "did not have good intentions" and were mostly unaffiliated with the school, according to a statement.

On Sunday, demonstrators at the University of California, Los Angeles breached a barrier set up to separate pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters, resulting in "physical altercations," according to a university spokesperson. Campus police eventually separated the two groups.

At Northeastern University, campus police arrested around 100 people Saturday after an encampment was "infiltrated by professional organizers with no affiliation" to the school and who were using "virulent antisemitic slurs," including "Kill the Jews," officials told NPR in a statement.

"All of these factors, taken together, left university leaders with no choice but to act," Chancellor Ken Henderson and Provost David Madigan wrote. "Over the weekend, like many colleges and universities nationwide, Northeastern faced an untenable dilemma."

Jewish students at several universities have reported feeling unsafe. A group of Jewish students at the University of Minnesota say they have seen "violent and hateful messages" on campus and no longer feel safe. Jewish student groups at other schools on Friday demanded that campus officials take stronger measures to ensure their safety.

Pro-Palestinian protesters at other universities have also expressed safety concerns, saying they've been doxxed and harassed. And they also say universities are stifling free speech.

David Cole, national legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, says colleges have to intervene if there is violence or targeted threats of violence, but short of that, it is "ultimately an exercise in discretion."

He says schools may also face pressure from politicians and donors to respond harshly. At Columbia, hundreds of alumni signed a statement this week demanding the school strongly discipline students who engage in threats and hate speech and remove all illegal encampments.

But sometimes pressure can backfire, Cole says.

"History demonstrates that if you try to suppress protests, you will only strengthen the side that you are seeking to vanquish," he says.

In the meantime, schools will continue grappling with safety concerns as the school year ends and graduation season gets underway.

Toward the end of its semester, Columbia University switched to hybrid classes. The University of Michigan is enlisting volunteers to be part of "protest and disruptions response" teams to work during May commencement ceremonies, and the University of Southern California recently announced it is canceling its main commencement ceremony altogether.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.