Home News Not teaching speech: University crackdowns are a cop-out

Not teaching speech: University crackdowns are a cop-out

On university campuses across America, students are getting a hands-on lesson in speech repression as their administrators respond to their pro-Palestinian organizing by calling in the cavalry almost immediately.

It’s useful here to draw a line between the consequence of measured, administrative, intra-university action and the consequence of police response and arrest. A student who makes comments that could be perceived as threatening or harassing other students should be the focus of a disciplinary hearing where administrators examine the evidence and the students’ conduct history and so on with violators facing campus punishment, like suspension.

Then there is calling in the cops to make arrests of individual students as trespassers or large roundups with mass arrests.

At Emory University, police violently arrested a professor who had knelt down beside a student being arrested, and who had not touched the student or the cops or otherwise done anything threatening. After officers grabbed her, it was she who was charged with battery.

Dozens were arrested at the public, First Amendment-bound campus of the University of Texas at Austin, including a local TV photographer who was covering the situation. At many more campuses around the country, students and faculty have been arrested for, essentially, sitting around and making a political opinion known.

Here in New York, Columbia has recognized that inviting in the NYPD to clear the initial tent city was a mistake and Friday said “that to bring back the NYPD at this time would be counterproductive, further inflaming what is happening on campus, and drawing thousands to our doorstep who would threaten our community.”

University administrators have justified arrests by pointing to antisemitic incidents. This avoids the difficult work of managing competing constituencies and interests on campus. Calling the cops is in effect a cop-out, an abdication of universities’ role as clearinghouses of debate and ideas. Memories of police responses to campus protests past can obscure the fact that this has not always been the first resort. Now, student demonstrations barely have enough time to get set up before the riot officers start arriving.

It’s an anti-speech strategy and an ineffective one at that, in that it only makes students more militant and determined; had the original encampment at Columbia been allowed to continue for the few remaining weeks until the end of the semester, it would have generated some headlines. Instead, Columbia’s almost immediate crackdown has spurred encampments all around the country, and grown that university’s own.

Inevitably, there will be those who accuse us of turning a blind eye towards the antisemitism that infects some of the protests, having apparently not read any other of this board’s editorials. We believe that the student demonstrators are wrong in calling for a boycott of Israel, which is the objective of many, if not all, of the encampments. What we do support is a commitment to robust speech protections on campus — a position that, by the way, many of those cheering on the crackdowns at one point or another have also claimed to hold.

Universities can deal with truly threatening or harassing student behavior with investigations, suspensions and expulsion if need be — the tools that already exist for this. Leave the cops for the crimes, not the thought crimes.


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