On November 1, 2023, Barnard College canceled an event titled “Let’s Talk Palestine” that was co-organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW). Barnard had given prior approval for the event to be held.
The decision occurred against the backdrop of a surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that left over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals dead and more than 200 abducted, and the subsequent Israeli military bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of the end of November, has reportedly killed more than 15,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions around speech on campus in the United States and across the world.
On October 30, Barnard reportedly confirmed the event was taking place. The event was planned for November 2 and had more than 300 people registered to attend. Scheduled speakers included Mohammed El-Kurd, a prominent Palestinian writer and poet, and Herbert Lehman, the Professor of Government Mahmood Mamdani at Columbia University.
On November 1, the administration canceled the event stating the students had not followed university policy. The administration specifically pointed to the co-sponsorship of SJP, a Columbia-affiliated group. According to Barnard’s event policy, events that are co-sponsored by non-Barnard organizations—including Columbia-affiliated individuals, departments, and groups— are required to apply for approval at least five weeks prior to the scheduled programming. BCRW members said they were not aware of the co-sponsorship policy.
The previous week, University of Vermont canceled an event with Mohammed El-Kurd citing “safety concerns” (see report).
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the attempt to limit the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly on campus by canceling an event that had previously been approved. University authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with student expression and assembly, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. University actions that limit the rights to free expression or association on campus have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.