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 29, 2024

Attack Types: Imprisonment

Institution(s):University of Texas-Austin

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 29, 2024, University of Texas, Austin (UT-Austin) police and Texas state troopers forcibly arrested 79 protesters who were participating in a peaceful pro-Palestinian encampment on the university’s campus. Thirty-four of the protesters arrested were affiliated with the university.

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 June 2024, has reportedly killed more than 36,000 Palestinians. The ongoing violence led to heightened tensions around free speech on campus across the US. The April 29th protest was the second peaceful pro-Palestine demonstration within a week that police forcibly dispersed at UT-Austin. Previously, on April 24, police rode onto campus on horseback and arrested more than 50 protesters on the campus’ South Lawn (see report).

On the morning of April 29, UT faculty held a silent vigil for the “scholasticide [and] destruction of education life in Gaza.” Immediately after the vigil ended, a group of around 50 protesters began to establish an encampment by setting up tents and tables on the South Lawn of the university’s campus.

Campus police requested several times that the protesters remove the encampment and disperse or risk arrest; the protesters declined. When police moved towards the encampment, students formed an arm-link chain around the encampment. Videos and photos posted on social media show police encircling the encampment and using pepper spray and deploying flashbangs to disperse the crowd of protesters. They forcibly arrested 78 of the protesters who were charged with criminal trespassing and one who was also charged with obstructing a highway or passageway.

On April 29, the university announced that police had arrested a total of 60 students during the April 24 and April 29 protests. The charges brought against the protesters arrested on April 24 were dropped, however charges for involvement on the 29, remained pending at the time of writing.

In a statement made on April 30, UT-Austin announced that weapons had been confiscated at the April 29 protest, including “guns, buckets of large rocks, bricks, steel enforced wood planks, mallets, and chains.” The students who participated in the protest deny this and instead say they used rocks to hold down papers and posters on the lawn, and noted that UT-Austin is a concealed carry campus, allowing students to legally carry guns on campus.

On June 7, several students received letters notifying them of disciplinary proceedings for their involvement in either or both of the April 24 and 29 protests. There was no publicly available information indicating how many students received letters, nor why some students had received disciplinary letters and not others. The letter accused the students of “participat[ing] in an event that disrupted/interfered with operations.” It instructed the students to respond in writing by June 18 by “address[ing] the allegations” and answering a list of specific questions–including why they did not disperse when requested; whether “it is appropriate” for them to create encampments, break university policy and exclude students related to their conduct; and whether they would do anything differently in retrospect. The students who received disciplinary letters reported that they could not access their transcripts or registration because the dean of students office had placed holds on each of their accounts. A university spokesperson reported that the dean of students had issued holds on the students’ accounts to “ensure compliance with the [disciplinary] process.”

UPDATE: On June 26, 2024, Travis County Attorney Delia Garza that the criminal trespassing charges brought against 79 people for the April 29 protest would be dismissed because of insufficient evidence.

UPDATE 2: In July 2024, it was reported that the UT-Austin had suspended some students for an average of two years for violating dispersal orders and disruptive behavior during the protests. The university gave some students the opportunity to defer their suspensions on the condition that they complete a test on UT’s Speech, Expression and Assembly rules and provide a written promise that they will follow all university rules going forward.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the forcible arrests of apparently peaceful student protesters by police. SAR is further concerned about a university taking disciplinary actions against students for their non-violent expression. 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.