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 18, 2024

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution | Loss of Position

Institution(s):Columbia University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 18, 2024, officers from the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrested 108 Columbia University and Barnard College students who had established a pro-Palestinian tent encampment on the Columbia University (CU) campus.

A student-led coalition of more than 120 student organizations set up the encampment during the early morning hours of April 17, as Columbia University’s president Minouche Shafik prepared to appear before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. The Committee had called Shafik to testify about CU’s response to the pro-Palestinian protests that had taken place on campus since October 7, 2023, when a Hamas attack on Israel killed over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals and resulted in the abduction of more than 200 others, and when the Israel military began a bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which as late April 2024, had killed more than 34,000 Palestinians. The ongoing violence led to heightened tensions around free speech on campus across the US and globe. The CU students intended their encampment, which was entirely peaceful, to demand that the university divest from institutions that “profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and military occupation of Palestine.”

Around 9:30 am, Columbia administrators warned the protesting students to disperse. The students refused. After a series of conversations with CU deans, President Shafik notified the CU Senate that she intended to ask the police to intervene in the protest. According to members of the Senate’s executive committee interviewed by the New York Times and Columbia Spectator, the executive committee responded disapprovingly.

The following day, April 18, CU’s Department of Public Safety shared a letter sent by President Shafik to the NYPD deputy commissioner. The letter stated that all students who remained in the encampment had been suspended, were not “authorized to be on University property and are trespassing.” The letter stated that the encampment was “a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University,” and requested the NYPD’s help in removing the students involved. Around 1:20pm, the NYPD informed students in the encampment that they would be arrested for trespassing if they did not disperse. More than 50 officers from the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, clad in riot gear, began to arrest students seven minutes later, carrying batons and zip ties. New York Mayor Eric Adams later reported that the students did not resist arrest and that there was no violence or injuries. All students arrested were released from custody by 10:36 pm that evening. That evening, the chairs of the CU Senate’s executive committee shared a statement with its constituents stating that it “vehemently” condemned the presence of police on campus and the arrests that had occurred.

The suspensions issued on April 18 meant that, even after they were released from detention, the students remained prohibited from entering campus spaces or attending campus events. In addition, their campus IDs were deactivated, and suspended students were barred from going to class or handing in coursework. Barnard College also issued interim suspensions to 53 students involved in the encampment. On April 24, Barnard College announced in a community-wide letter that it would lift the suspensions of those students who had “not previously engaged in misconduct” and agreed to follow college rules during a period of probation that would last through August 9, as well as to submit a 100-word paper reflecting on the Student Code of Conduct. An email shared with the suspended students also stated that the sanctions would not appear on their student records if they did not engage in future misconduct. At the time of writing, there was no publicly available information indicating whether the CU students remained suspended.

On April 22, the Barnard chapter of the American Association of University Professors unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in Barnard’s president Laura Rosenbury; the full faculty later passed a vote of no confidence in President Rosenbury on April 30. On April 26, the CU University Senate passed a resolution stating that President Shafik and the CU administration had undermined academic freedom and disregarded students’ and faculty members’ privacy and due process rights in calling the police onto campus. On April 25, Palestine Legal filed a civil rights complaint demanding that the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigate CU’s treatment of Palestinian students and their allies, including during the April 18 arrests.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the forcible arrests of peaceful student protesters. 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.