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 25, 2024

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):American University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 25, 2024, American University announced a new policy banning protests inside of campus buildings, warning that student clubs identified as “unwelcoming” would lose university recognition, and stating that materials posted on campus must be “welcoming and build community.”

The announcement came in an email to the college community signed by AU President Sylvia Burwell, CFO, Vice President, and Treasurer Bronté Burleigh-Jones, Vice President of Inclusive Excellence Nkenge Friday, Vice President of Student Affairs Raymond Ou, and Director of Athletics and Recreation Billy Walker. The email referred to “Recent events and incidents on campus” that “have made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcoming” and described the new policy in response.

According to the email, the policy has three components. First, the email stated, “Effective immediately, protests are not allowed to occur in university buildings, residence halls, dining facilities, or other indoor spaces used for educational activities, events, or university operations.” Second, the email noted “Any membership requirements for student clubs and organizations, including formal criteria and informal standards, must be germane, relevant, and directly connected to the group’s purpose. Clubs and organizations that violate this membership approach will lose university recognition, resulting in the loss of funding and the ability to reserve university facilities.” Third, the email also addressed materials posted on campus, including “posters, signs, notices, and flyers,” stating that they must be “welcoming and build community” and that materials posted on university-owned spaces should be limited to event promotion. Materials not adhering to these guidelines would “be removed as soon as possible and any community members displaying such posters are subject to disciplinary action.”

According to AU’s local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the policy change was “adopted without a transparent process, faculty input, or meaningful community discussion of alternatives.” The AAUP chapter further expressed concern that the policy’s vague terms — including its lack of definition of a “student protest” or the concept of “welcoming” — could suppress expression on campus.

The policy change came the semester after 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 February 2024, has reportedly killed more than 27,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries, including protests at AU.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about a higher education institution adopting—without transparency or consultation with the wider community—a vague and restrictive policy on student expression on campus. While higher education officials have an obligation to ensure the safety of their communities, they also 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.