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 24, 2024

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Violence

Institution(s):University of Texas-Austin

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 24, 2024, local police and Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers arrested 57 people at a peaceful pro-Palestine demonstration organized by the University of Texas Austin’s (UT-Austin) Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) on the university’s campus.

The arrests took place six 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 early May 2024, has reportedly killed more than 34,000 Palestinians. The ongoing violence led to heightened tensions around free speech on campus across the US. In March 2024, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed an executive order requiring the state’s higher education institutions to update their policies on free speech to conform to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) contested definition of antisemitism. Abbott’s executive order specifically singled out PSC, the organization of the April 24th demonstration, for punishment (see report).

PSC announced their plans on April 23, stating that the demonstration would include a march to the South Lawn of the university’s campus, where organizers would hold teach-ins, study breaks, an art workshop, and a talk from a guest speaker, accompanied by pizza. That night, the university wrote to PSC telling them to cancel the event. The letter accused PSC of a “declared intent to violate our policies and rules, and disrupt our campus operations” by holding the demonstration, and continued “Such disruptions are never allowed and are especially damaging while our students prepare for the end of the semester and final exams.”

On April 24, as students began their march to South Lawn, they were met by police. DPS stated that it had entered campus “at the request of the University and at the direction of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, in order to prevent any unlawful assembly and to support UT Police in maintaining the peace by arresting anyone engaging in any sort of criminal activity, including criminal trespass.” Videos posted to social media show police riding onto campus on horseback and forcibly arresting protesters.

Following the arrests, UT-Austin announced that nearly half of the protesters arrested were unaffiliated with the university. Travis County Attorney Delia Garza announced that her office had received 46 cases for criminal trespassing stemming from the arrests at UT-Austin and found that there was “insufficient probable cause” for the misdemeanor in each case. All of those arrested were released. Garza further stated that there was no evidence that the demonstrators carried “guns, buckets of large rocks, bricks, steel-enforced wood planks, mallets and chains,” as UT-Austin’s administration had suggested.

On April 25, UT-Austin announced that PSC had been placed on interim suspension “due to alleged violation of institutional rules.”

In the wake of the arrests, the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors condemned UT leaders, stating, “There was no threat of violence, no plan to disrupt classes, no intimidation of the campus community. UT-Austin’s group of Faculty for Justice in Palestine organized a second protest to show that they did not condone the arrests. That protest, which took place on April 25, occurred without significant incident.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the forcible arrest of peaceful student protesters by police invited onto campus by university administration, apparently intended to prevent students from exercising their freedom of expression and assembly in relation to a disfavored topic. Scholars at Risk is further concerned about the suspension of a student group on apparently political and ideological grounds. 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. Moreover, where alleged violations of university policy do occur, authorities have an obligation to ensure due process, transparency, fairness, and proportionality when engaging in disciplinary action, and should avoid punishments that effectively restrict future expressive activity. The punishment of nonviolent student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.

Sources:
https://www.kxan.com/news/texas/ut-austin-students-to-protest-in-support-of-gaza-with-class-walk-out-and-campus-sit-in/
https://www.chronicle.com/article/this-is-incredibly-scary-students-arrested-at-ut-austin-protests
https://www.statesman.com/story/news/education/2024/04/25/ut-austin-professors-students-pro-palestinian-protest-campus-live-updates/73450483007/
https://www.kut.org/crime-justice/2024-05-02/ut-says-pro-palestinian-demonstrators-carried-guns-and-assaulted-people-prosecutors-beg-to-differ
https://www.thefire.org/news/texas-tramples-first-amendment-rights-police-crackdown-pro-palestinian-protests
https://twitter.com/TexasAaup/status/1783266468408299876
https://twitter.com/GraceReaderTV/status/1783260912217899444
https://twitter.com/RyanChandlerTV/status/1783208339331047745