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 Utah

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 29, 2024, University of Utah and Salt Lake city police arrested 19 protesters, including four current students and one university employee, who were participating in a peaceful pro-Palestinian encampment 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 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 university’s chapter of Mecha (Mecha de U of U) – a socialist student group – organized the protest. On April 28, the group posted on social media calling for an “emergency rally” for Palestine.

On the morning of April 29, a large group of students and community members gathered on the steps of the university’s administration building. Around 4:00 pm, some protesters began setting up an encampment in President’s Circle. Videos and photos posted on social media show protesters linking arms encircled around the encampment, while chanting, dancing, and playing games with one another. Initially, only campus police were present at the protest, however police units from across Salt Lake city, including the Public Protection Unit, Public Order Unit, Utah Highway Patrol, and West Valley City Police, joined later in the evening.

Over the course of six hours, university administrators gave several warnings that the encampment violated both campus policy and Utah state law, which makes it “[illegal] to set up structures or camp overnight on university property.” Around 9:20 pm, administrators announced by email that if “[the] tents are not taken down, they will be removed by law enforcement” and that students could be subjected to “university discipline ranging from probation to suspension, and criminal trespass and disorderly conduct charges;” faculty and staff could be “terminat[ed], and [charged with] criminal trespass and disorderly conduct;” and community members could be charged with “criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.”

Around 11:00 pm, police, clad in riot gear, began forcibly arresting protesters. According to the university, protesters threw water bottles, buckets, cans of food, and rocks at the police. Videos posted on social media show the police knocking protesters to the ground with shields, dragging some off by their arms or feet, and removing the tents from the ground. A local media outlet reported that as an individual was reaching for a rock, police shot small pellets using a less lethal weapon. The pellets hit several people, including at least one credentialed journalist.

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