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: April 08, 2024

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):American University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 8, 2024, American University (AU) put the campus’ Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter on probation for engaging in nonviolent expression in violation of a new university policy on campus protests.

On January 25, AU announced a broadly worded new policy banning protests inside of campus buildings used for “educational activities, events, or university operations.” The policy also stated that membership for student groups must be “germane, relevant, and directly connected to the group’s purpose” and that materials posed on campus must be “welcoming and build community” and limited to event promotion. The new policy was announced a week after Jewish advocacy groups filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaint describes a series of anti-semitic incidents on campus and accused AU of an insufficient response to anti-semitism on campus. The policies announced on January 25 appeared to be an effort to address the complaint.

The policy sparked significant criticism for being adopted without transparency or community input and for being overly broad and vague in its terms. On February 5, AU announced that it would convene a Working Group on Free Expression that would review the policies, including by soliciting community input. However, on February 8, SJP organized a peaceful demonstration during which students silently walked through a campus building holding signs calling for AU to divest from institutions associated with Israel and condemning Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza. The university opened a disciplinary investigation into the group’s conduct shortly thereafter.

On April 8, SJP announced on social media that AU had put the group on probation after concluding during a hearing that the February 8th protest had violated AU’s new demonstration policy. AU’s vice president also contended the group’s probation was necessary as “part of [the university’s overall commitment to campus safety.” Student organizations that are placed on probation can be suspended if found to be responsible for further violations of university policy.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about disciplinary actions that restrict or punish nonviolent student expression and assembly. While university authorities have an obligation to take all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of students and university personnel, and should endeavor to prevent disruptions that inappropriately inhibit the functioning of or access to higher education, they must do so consistent with their responsibility to ensure academic freedom and free expression on campus. The punishment of nonviolent student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.