SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: November 10, 2023

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Columbia University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 10, 2023, the Columbia University administration announced that it had suspended two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), for the remainder of the semester, rendering both groups ineligible to hold events on campus or receive university funding.

The de-recognition decision occurred against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,000 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of the end of November, has reportedly killed more than 14,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions around speech on campuses in the United States and other countries. In the weeks before Columbia University’s suspension of SJP and JVP, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Louis D. Brandeis Center had written to 200 colleges and universities urging them to investigate local SJP chapters to determine “whether they have improper funding sources, have violated the school code of conduct, have violated state or federal laws, and/or are providing material support to Hamas.” In the letter, the ADL accused some SJP chapters of having “issued pro-Hamas messaging and/or promoted violent anti-Israel messaging channels,” but did not offer specific allegations.

On October 24, two weeks after a protest by SJP and JVP, along with a counter protest by Students for Israel, drew hundreds of students and attracted media attention, the Columbia University administration unilaterally updated its policies and language concerning student group events. The decision was made by a Special Committee on Campus Safety, reportedly without consulting faculty or students. The Special Committee on Campus Safety is composed of representatives from Public Safety, University Life, Communications, and the Offices of the President, Provost, and General Counsel. It is unclear when the Committee was created, but it has met once a day since October 7.

Among the policy changes made were a requirement for 10-days advance notice for a newly defined category of “special events” that includes those held outdoors or drawing more than 25 attendees. The changes also expanded the administration’s authority over events on campus. The webpage for the Student Group Event Policy was updated to state “It is within the University administration’s sole discretion to determine whether or not there has been a violation of the Event Policy and Procedure and what the appropriate sanctions shall be and the duration of such sanction. Sanctions made under this policy are final and not appealable.” The University Event Policy was updated to state that “the University may regulate the time, place and manner of certain forms of public expression.”

Columbia University Undergraduate Student Life shared the changes to the policies with several student governing bodies on October 25 in an email that included several other announcements, and sent a reminder about the policies to those governing bodies on November 7.

On November 9, SJP and JVP held a protest entitled “Shut It Down! For Palestine.” The peaceful event included a walkout and an art installation including plywood posters showing painted trees and Palestinian flags, and phrases demanding that the Columbia University administration call for a ceasefire and label the Israeli air and ground assault in Gaza a “genocide.” The event was one of many similar ones carried out that day across the United States.

On November 10, Rosberg wrote in a public statement the university was suspending the two groups, alleging that they had violated university policies on holding campus events and used “threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” The letter specified neither which policies were violated nor the threatening rhetoric or acts of intimidation, but the statement pointed specifically to the event held the previous day.

Following the groups’ de-recognition, the Columbia chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) expressed concern about the suspension of JVP and SJP, noting that, “The extraordinary measures taken to suspend the two groups represent a serious threat to academic freedom, shared faculty governance, and free speech on campus, not just for SJP and JVP, but for students and faculty at large.” The chapter pointed to a series of actions taken by the Columbia University administration, which “flagrantly contravenes University rules and procedures.” For example, the AAUP chapter noted that “The “Special Committee on Campus Safety,” on whose behalf Mr. Rosberg was acting, seems to have been invented whole-cloth, solely for the purpose of disciplining student activism” and that the creation of the committee “completely circumvents the Senate Rules Committee, which is charged with enforcing the Rules of University Conduct.”

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of student groups, apparently intended to restrict or punish nonviolent student expression. SAR is further concerned about new university policies apparently intended to unreasonably restrict campus speech and their creation by way of a process that contravenes norms of shared faculty governance. University authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with expressive activities, so long as they are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. University authorities further have an obligation to ensure due process, transparency and fairness when engaging in disciplinary action. University actions limiting the rights to free expression or association on campus have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.