With graduation near, colleges seek to balance safety and students' right to protest Gaza war

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — The University of Michigan is informing students of the rules for upcoming graduation ceremonies: Banners and flags are not allowed. Protests are OK but in designated areas away from the cap-and-gown festivities.

The University of Southern California canceled a planned speech by the school's Muslim valedictorian — and then “released” all its outside commencement speakers. At Columbia University, where more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested last week, the protests have included a large tent encampment on the Ivy League school's main lawn, the very place graduating students and families are set to gather next month.

This is commencement season 2024, punctuated by the tension and volatility that has roiled college campuses since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. Militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. In response, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry.

Since the war began, colleges and universities have struggled to balance campus safety with free speech rights amid intense student debate and protests. Many schools that tolerated protests and other disruptions for months are now doling out more heavy-handed discipline. A series of recent campus crackdowns on student protesters have included suspensions and, in some cases, expulsions.

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik said the Middle East conflict is terrible and she understands many are experiencing deep moral distress.

“But we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view,” she wrote in a note addressed to the school community Monday.

The new measures have done little to stop protests. In recent days, pro-Palestinian demonstrators set up encampments on campuses around the country, including at Columbia, the University of Michigan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University, where several dozen protesters were arrested after officials said they defied warnings to leave.

While the majority of protests across college campuses have been peaceful, some have turned aggressive. Some Jewish students say much of the criticism of Israel has veered into antisemitism and made them feel unsafe.

Protesters are asking universities to take a number of actions, such as calling for a cease-fire in the war, or divesting from defense companies that do business with Israel.

“The weapons being made in this country are being sent to Israel and being used in the war on Gaza,” said Craig Birckhead-Morton, a Yale senior who was arrested Monday after refusing to leave a protest encampment. “We have to highlight the difficulties the Palestinian people are going through."

At MIT, protesters also have asked the university to stop what they say is funding from the Ministry of Defense in Israel to university projects with military objectives.

“We believe that we have a platform that students in other universities don’t have because of our unique ties to the Israeli military,” said Shara Bhuiyan, a 21-year-old senior studying electrical engineering and computer science.

The intense emotions on both sides have created a climate that has unsettled both Jewish and Muslim students. More than half of such students, and a fifth of all college students, reported feeling unsafe on campus because of their stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a report published in March by the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats.

Among the commencement speakers likely to encounter protesters is President Joe Biden, who is speaking at ceremonies next month for Morehouse College and the U.S. Military Academy.

Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League sent an open letter to college and university presidents urging them to “take clear decisive action” to ensure graduation ceremonies run smoothly and safely.

“We remain deeply concerned regarding the possibility of substantial disruptions during commencement ceremonies,” Shira Goodman, the ADL’s senior director of advocacy, said in an emailed statement.

The protest movement ramped up nationally after Shafik, the Columbia president, summoned New York City police on Thursday to clear a pro-Palestinian tent camp from the university's campus after student protesters ignored demands to leave. She described the move as an “extraordinary step” to keep the campus safe.

All 100 or so students arrested were charged with trespassing and then several were suspended — but as of Tuesday, the large protest encampment remained on the main lawn where grandstands for Columbia's May 15 commencement have already been installed.

The arrests came a day after Shafik pledged during a congressional hearing on antisemitism to balance students’ safety with their right to free speech. Following similar testimony last year, the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania — answering accusations that universities were failing to protect Jewish students — resigned.

Several other college campuses around the country kicked off the new year with revised protest rules. In January, American University banned indoor protests. Harvard started the spring semester with guidance effectively limiting protests to outdoor areas.

The University of Michigan drafted a proposed “Disruptive Activity Policy” earlier this month. Violations of the policy, which has not yet been implemented, could result in suspension or expulsion of students and termination of university staff.

The proposal came in response to a raucous March 24 protest that halted the school’s annual honors convocation, a 100-year-old tradition preceding the May 4 graduation. Protesters interrupted a speech by university President Santa J. Ono with shouts of, “You’re funding genocide!” and unfurled banners that said: “Free Palestine,” forcing an abrupt end to the ceremony.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan said in a letter to Ono that the policy “is vague and overbroad, and risks chilling a substantial amount of free speech and expression.”

But in a letter to the campus, Ono remarked that “while protest is valued and protected, disruptions are not.”

“One group’s right to protest does not supersede the right of others to participate in a joyous event,” he wrote.

At Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, more than two dozen anti-Israel demonstrators stormed the university president’s office in late March, refusing to leave for hours. Three of the students were expelled, including freshman Jack Petocz.

“It’s a very scary moment,” said Petocz, 19, who is appealing the decision. “It’s about the crackdown on free speech on campuses but it’s also about campuses becoming police states.”

Last Monday, the University of Southern California cited “substantial risks relating to security and disruption at the commencement" when it announced it would break from tradition and not allow valedictorian Asna Tabassum, a first-generation South Asian American Muslim, to deliver a speech at the May 10 commencement.

The decision sparked outrage and several days of protests on campus, prompting another unexpected shake-up days later: the cancellation of a keynote speaker for the first time since 1942.

The events at USC have raised concern that other schools will bow to pressure and erode free speech, said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, a civil rights attorney and national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“I am worried that schools might decline to select a qualified visibly Muslim student who advocates for Palestine, to avoid what happened at USC,” he said. “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 honor of speaking at their graduation ceremonies.”

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Gecker reported from San Francisco.

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Jocelyn Gecker And Steve Leblanc, The Associated Press