Activism / April 1, 2024

Columbia Is Waging War on Dissent

The university is under pressure to root out any students or faculty critical of Israel—and it’s already caved.

Katherine Franke

A protester is arrested at a Columbia University demonstration.

(Alexi J. Rosenfeld / Getty)

Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t say to me, “What the heck is going on at Columbia?” I’ve been part of the community at Columbia University and Barnard College for more than 45 years—as an undergrad at Barnard in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and as a professor at the law school since 1999. But since October 7, this institution has become unrecognizable to me. I can only conclude that it has lost its way.

I chose Barnard for my undergraduate education in significant part because of its reputation for having a politically engaged student body and university leadership that allowed, if not welcomed, student engagement with the political events of the day. As a student I learned almost as much from the teach-ins and protests on campus as I did in the classroom with my professors. Student-led political actions on the campus, often on the steps of Low Library, the building holding the president’s and provost’s offices, exposed me to new ideas and information about US military intervention in Central America, the movement to end apartheid in South Africa, disputes between feminists on the role of pornography in women’s sexual oppression, and so much more.

Columbia’s campus has a history of radical student protests: Buildings were occupied for weeks as part of a demand to create an ethnic studies department in the 1996, and to force the university to divest from companies in the fossil fuel business in 2016. Students built shantytowns on the steps Low Library to protest the university’s ties to apartheid South Africa in 1986. An undergraduate student protested the university’s failure to adequately address sexual assault and violence on campus by carrying a 50-pound mattress with her to class and to all activities on campus, including her graduation, in 2015. Yet, in recent months, Columbia has tried to sanitize student engagement with Israel/Palestine—claiming that student protests make (some) Jewish students feel uncomfortable.

It has reached a point where our students who stand in solidarity with Palestinians find themselves so fully constrained by a web of rules regulating their speech and expressive conduct—and a bureaucracy determined to enforce those rules abusively—that they have lost any faith that the university is truly committed to the principles of academic freedom and the robust debate of ideas. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that the university now sees its primary constituency, to whom it owes a duty of loyalty, as outside institutional actors, such as congressional committees, foreign governments, and the NGOs and funders supporting those entities, not its students and faculty.

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A few recent examples will make this breach of loyalty to our students clear. In the weeks after the October attacks, a number of students hung flags outside their dorm rooms; some hung Palestinian flags and others Israeli flags, to signal their support for the people in Gaza or Israel. Barnard College filed disciplinary charges against three students for hanging Palestinian flags outside their windows, citing a city ordinance that prohibited the hanging of anything outside of a residential window. As I helped them prepare a defense to these charges, I tried to find this ordinance, yet it turned out that not only did the city have no such ordinance; it had a law that specifically protected the hanging of a flag outside of a window, including a dormitory window. When we raised this concern with Barnard, it admitted that it was mistaken, wrote a new rule prohibiting the hanging of flags outside dorm windows, then applied it retroactively to these students and disciplined them under the new rule.

Another student attended a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus (the one where protesters were sprayed with skunk water—a horrendous, noxious liquid that causes upper respiratory problems, headache, and hair loss), and draped the statute of Alma Mater on the steps of Low Library with a Palestinian flag, moving a metal barrier around the statue to do so. The university found her guilty of serious violations of school’s the Rules of Conduct, for which they gave her the sanction of two years of academic probation, 50 hours of community service, and a required essay about what can go wrong at a protest. This sanction was miles outside the norm for how the university has handled similar actions in the past. Graduate student union organizers and students protesting lax enforcement of sexual assault laws, for example, had often “decorated” Alma Mater as part of their campus protests. None of them had been disciplined for doing so.

In fact, Black Lives Matter activists on campus also adorned the statue in support of their protests—and Columbia used this photo in Columbia Magazine to highlight how the Columbia/Barnard community was engaging this important racial justice movement.

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Perhaps the worst part of the university’s sanctioning of this student was the fact that three days before they sent her the letter informing her of the conviction and punishment, she had notified the school that she had to withdraw from school for mental health reasons and was already living in another state with her parents.

One last example is even more shocking. In early February a group of students decided to protest a talk that Hillary Clinton was giving at Columbia on gender-based violence in armed conflict by staging a silent walkout of the event. They chose to protest the event because of Clinton’s longtime support for the Israeli government and how charges of sexual violence have been used in the framing of guilt and innocence since October 7. Students have engaged in this kind of protest for decades without the university treating it as a disciplinary matter. Ironically, Clinton herself has made statements on social media applauding students who have staged silent walkouts in other contexts. History notwithstanding, many students were charged with multiple disciplinary code violations for walking out of this lecture. One student who received a very strong letter threatening discipline had gotten up and walked out of the room quietly because she was suffering a severe asthma attack. Her friend left with her, concerned about the student’s health. Security video shows the student retrieving her bag after she left the room and pulling out her inhaler. When she wrote to the disciplinary office to ask that the charges be dismissed given that she was not part of the protest and instead had been suffering a medical incident, they wrote back claiming that her version of the events was “an incomplete and misleading description of what happened.” She responded to them, “Having shared my medical condition…as part of a good faith explanation for my conduct on February 9, 2024, and then having that explanation met with such a hostile response from the [university], it is hard to avoid the impression that I am being retaliated against for having a disability, clearly its own violation of Columbia’s EOAA policies, as well as local, state, and federal law.”

This shift in Columbia’s response to student protests started in early November, when the university took the unprecedented step of suspending two student groups, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. (The New York Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal recently filed a lawsuit challenging the groups’ suspension.) Shortly thereafter, university President Minouche Shafik created an antisemitism task force to investigate instances of antisemitism on our campus and recommend institutional responses to it. (A promised task force to investigate cases of bias against Muslims, Arabs, or Palestinians has not materialized.) The task force has been asked many times to make clear what definition of antisemitism they are using in their work, but it refuses to do so. The body is chaired by among the most ardent Zionist faculty members on our campus, former law school dean David Schizer, former journalism school dean Nicholas Lehman, and public affairs and political science professor Esther Fuchs, and none of its members has any academic expertise in the study of antisemitism, or in how antidiscrimination laws apply in an academic setting. This knowledge gap is in full relief in the report they just issued, in which they misstate federal antidiscrimination law that applies to universities (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). The report strongly recommends disciplining all speech that is experienced by Jewish students as biased or hateful, regardless of what the speaker meant or what the objective meaning of the statement may be (consider “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” for example). This standard is much stricter, and thus much more restrictive of free speech, than that in the law. The Department of Education has clearly, and recently, stated that proving discrimination or harassment requires more than showing merely that the speech was experienced as painful by the student making the complaint; rather, “based on the totality of circumstances, [harassing speech or conduct must be] subjectively and objectively offensive and is so severe or pervasive that it limits or denies a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the recipient’s education program or activity.”

There are enormous pressures being placed on Columbia to be even more aggressive than it has already been in disciplining speech and expressive conduct that meets the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which has long been criticized for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Last December, three university presidents were called before a congressional committee to be grilled on why they weren’t doing more to sanction pro-Palestinian speech on their campuses that committee chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) deemed to be antisemitic. Harvard President Claudine Gay and University of Pennsylvania President Liz McGill both lost their jobs after that hearing. The same committee has summoned Columbia President Shafik to testify in mid-April, accompanied by the cochairs of Columbia’s board of trustees. Meanwhile, two different lawsuits have been filed against Columbia and Barnard claiming that they have not worked hard enough to combat what the lawsuits say are “mob-like protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations continu[ing] with ferocity,” and “mobs of pro-Hamas students and faculty [who] have marched by the hundreds through Columbia’s campus.” Lest anyone be misled, there have been no mobs (of any kind) on our campus, and none of the students or faculty who have expressed solidarity with Palestinians generally, or Gazans specifically, have expressed support for Hamas.

Succumbing to this pressure, Columbia is has now started going after its faculty, initiating internal discrimination complaints against faculty who are pro-Palestinian, monitoring syllabi to censure what faculty are teaching, and removing them from teaching when there are student complaints about professors applying terms such as “settler colonialism” or “apartheid” to the context of Israel.

Through all of this, it is clear that Columbia is burdened by an intractable conflict of interest: On the one hand, it is charged in two lawsuits and by Congress with allowing a horrendously antisemitic environment (in their view) to fester on our campus, and claims that it has under-enforced its own rules of conduct and antidiscrimination law. On the other, it is responsible for impartially investigating and adjudicating disciplinary charges brought against students and faculty in connection with their pro-Palestinian speech and protest. As such, the school has very strong incentives, in light of the lawsuits and congressional pressure, to over-enforce the rules against the pro-Palestinian members of our community—to prove that it is doing everything it can to eradicate speech and expressive conduct that is experienced by some students as offensive or painful. Trapped by these two gravitational pulls, Columbia risks violating its most fundamental principles, stated clearly on the university’s website: “But the role of the University is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome. Rather, the University is a place for received wisdom and firmly held views to be tested, and tested again, so that members of the University community can listen, challenge each other, and be challenged in return.”

Now more than ever, universities should be protecting and defending their unique role in society as places that can generate and hold engagement with the complex histories and politics that lay below the surface of the current violence in Israel and Gaza. But not at Columbia and Barnard. What scares me more than anything is what we might be looking at a year from now, with Trump back in the White House. He has been clear that destroying liberal universities will be among his first priorities. If this happens, Columbia’s administration, faculty, and students will need to face that fight together—and that fight will be so much more challenging than what any of us are facing now. It just pains me to imagine how we can get from the place we are in now—where Columbia and Barnard have waged war on their students—to forming a unified front in defense of the very idea of the university.

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Katherine Franke

Katherine Franke is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University and the founder and faculty director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project.

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