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: February 13, 2024

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On February 13, 2024, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suspended the pro-Palestinian student group Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA) for holding an unauthorized demonstration.

The group’s suspension came five months 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 mid April 2024, has reportedly killed more than 33,000 Palestinians. The ongoing violence led to heightened tensions around free speech on campus across the US and the globe. At MIT, CAA began holding a series of demonstrations in early November, leading to an investigation by MIT’s Institute Discrimination and Response Office (IDHR).

On January 31, 2024, MIT’s Provost Cynthia Barnhardt and Chancellor Melissa Nobles sent an email to the MIT community that included new “reasonable ‘time, place, and manner’ restrictions” on campus protests. The guidance stated that campus groups that want to hold vigils, protests, or demonstrations must meet with the Office of Student Organizations, Leadership, and Engagement (SOLE), a subunit of the Division of Student Life (DSL), at least three days prior to the planned event. On February 2 and 6, CAA met with members of the DSL and SOLE to discuss the new guidance. According to a faculty investigation, CAA objected to the three day notice, arguing that it did not allow for spontaneous protests in response to emergency situations. The parties thus reached an agreement that, in situations where an emergency protest was necessary, CAA would notify SOLE and DSL and coordinate with them as early as possible—not necessarily three-days in advance—about their planned protest actions.

On the night of February 11-12, during which Israeli air forces carried out aerial strikes on Rafah in Gaza, CAA decided to hold an emergency protest the following day. Throughout the day of February 12, CAA engaged in a series of exchanges with DSL and SOLE to coordinate a rally for that evening. SOLE apparently gave tacit approval for the rally, including by providing a sound system for CAA to use. DSL, however, informed CAA that it could not hold the rally because the group had not notified the office of its plans three days in advance. At 5pm, CAA began its rally in front of MIT’s student center.

On February 13, DSL sent CAA a suspension letter citing its demonstration the previous day. MIT President Sally Kornbluth also publicly announced the group’s suspension in a video message. The suspension means that CAA is unable to reserve space on campus or to use MIT facilities, cannot access funding for student groups, and will not be permitted to organize future demonstrations on campus. In addition, DSL sent 13 executive members of CAA a letter temporarily banning them from leadership roles in all student groups at MIT.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of a student group, apparently intended to restrict or punish nonviolent student expression. SAR is further concerned about new university policies apparently intended to restrict campus speech. 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.