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: January 19, 2024

Attack Types: Killings, Violence, Disappearances

Institution(s):Columbia University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 19, 2024, at least two people allegedly sprayed Columbia University students with a foul-smelling chemical during a pro-Palestinian “divest now” rally on campus.

The January 19th rally was organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the Barnard-Columbia Abolition Collective, and Student-Worker Solidarity and unauthorized by the university. According to the Columbia Spectator, a student newspaper, 18 students reported spelling a putrid smell during the rally, and 10 reported symptoms that included burning eyes, headaches, and nausea. Several students sought medical attention, including one who reported that the doctors had diagnosed her with exposure to a chemical substance. Several students also reported seeing someone spray an unidentified substance into the crowd. Some present claimed that the substance appeared to be “Skunk” a “non-lethal vile smelling liquid” developed by an Israeli company for law enforcement and crowd control.

Columbia University and the New York Police Department opened investigations into the reports. Columbia University identified the individuals involved in spraying the substance and banned them from campus. No further details about the results of the investigations were publicly available at the time of writing.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about attacks on nonviolent student protesters. All members of society must refrain from violence and have an obligation to respect the right to freedom of association and freedom of expression. University authorities have a responsibility to take reasonable measures to ensure safe conditions for students. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, violence on campus erodes academic freedom, damages the ability to exercise the rights to engage in freedom of expression and assembly, and harms democratic society more generally.