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: December 13, 2023

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Ohio State University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On December 13, 2023, Ohio State University (OSU) suspended the Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists (CORS), a leftist student group, stating that the group’s activities posed “a risk of substantial harm” to the OSU community. The university reinstated the group on February 2, 2024.

The suspension decision occurred against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 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 early April 2024, has reportedly killed more than 33,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries.

On December 6, CORS posted fliers advertising an event, “Intifada, Revolution, and the Path to a Free Palestine.” The event was to be held the following day, December 7, “Reading Day,” when classes are canceled and students can use classrooms to study for their finals. The event flier included an image of a person wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf, carrying a rifle, and holding a grenade. In the lower left corner of the image appeared the logo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist–Leninist and revolutionary socialist organization that has engaged in armed resistance and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. Upon seeing the fliers, a member of OSU’s administration emailed CORS to notify them that university policy stipulates that classrooms cannot be used for events on Reading Day. CORS reportedly did not see the email immediately, and held the event on December 7, as planned, without incident.

On December 11, three social media accounts @israelwarroom, @jewhatedb, and @antisemitismtoday shared posts calling CORS “a school-approved club at [OSU] that openly supports terrorism and calls for the genocide of Jews.” The posts called on OSU to disband CORS.

On December 13, OSU suspended CORS pending investigation, stating that there was “reasonable cause to believe [the] organization’s activities pose a significant risk of substantial harm to the safety or security” of group members or others.” The university further stated that the group had been suspended for violating university policies on where posters could be hung, holding an event in a classroom on Reading Day, and disseminating “materials that include a logo associated with a designated terrorist organization.” CORS was unable to participate in or sponsor activities on campus during its suspension.

On January 8, CORS met with Student Conduct Director Kelly Smith and Anti-Hazing Compliance Specialist Becca Hamilton to discuss the allegations against them. During the meeting, Smith and Hamilton admitted that university’s policies on Reading Day events and signage were inconsistently enforced only when complaints were made, and that it was the fact that CORS exercised its right to free expression by using of an image with PFLP’s logo that “likely” led to the group’s suspension.

On January 17, CORS met again with Smith and Hamilton. During the meeting, Smith and Hamilton proposed that the group agree to deferred charges, meaning that the group would be reinstated as long as it met several conditions, including meeting with the administration and reviewing and revising their constitution. CORS accepted the deferred charges on February 2 and was reinstated.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of a student group in apparent retaliation for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression. University authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with expressive activity on campus, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Where alleged violations of university policy do occur, authorities have an obligation to ensure due process, transparency, fairness, and proportionality when engaging in disciplinary action, and should avoid punishments that effectively restrict future expressive activity. 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.