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Monday, June 10, 2024

Protests are meant to be inconvenient

The Editorial Board urges administrators to pay attention to student voices as pro-Palestinian protests erupt across America




In recent weeks, protests have broken out on college campuses across the country calling for universities to take action in support of Palestine in response to the current conflict in the Middle East. 

At the University of Southern California, an on-campus encampment formed after the university announced they would not allow their valedictorian — who has publicly supported Palestinians — to make a commencement speech. They later closed the campus to outside visitors and canceled their main commencement ceremony, although college-specific graduation ceremonies will go on as planned without the valedictory address. 

A similar encampment is ongoing at Cal Poly Humboldt, where the campus is closed until May 10 due to protestors occupying and defacing the office of the campus president, as well as setting up dozens of tents around the hall, according to the New York Times.

UC Davis students have spoken up as well in response to the violence in Gaza. In February, urged by hundreds of students who showed up at the quarterly ASUCD Town Hall to speak during public comment, the ASUCD Senate passed Senate Bill (SB) #52, implementing an ASUCD boycott of and divestment from “corporations complicit in human rights violations against Palestinians.” 

The Editorial Board believes that in a moment like this, when students feel passionate enough about an issue to do something about it, universities have an essential opportunity to remember and uplift the importance of free speech — even and especially when it’s controversial or inconvenient. 

Do colleges legally have the ability to set rules in place and enforce those rules when it comes to destruction of property, or trespassing? Yes, and we understand why responding to these protests can be complicated. There might be some legitimate safety issues, concerns about the costs of vandalism and an unwillingness to interrupt education — especially when it’s already been interrupted so recently by the COVID-19 pandemic and a UC system-wide academic strike last fall

But although there are legal boundaries, the First Amendment doesn’t say that we have freedom of speech except when it makes things complicated. In fact, the point of being a country that values free expression is precisely to make things complicated, or to have enough diversity of viewpoints that the complexity of a situation is revealed. Protests are inconvenient for a reason — that’s what makes people pay attention to the issues they’re fighting for. 

If anything, colleges should be more of an advocate of free expression than almost anyone else. If university is meant to teach students how to think critically, how to form an opinion in complex situations and how to care deeply about the things going on in the world around them, students shouldn’t be punished for doing just that. 

There is an important distinction to be made. We recognize that not all of the protests have been peaceful. Some universities cited acts of antisemitism as reason for increasing security or closing down their campus, whether it be harassment of Jewish students — at Columbia, students reported being shoved, spat upon and blocked from attending classes — or violent chants and slurs, from “Kill the Jews,” at Northeastern University to “Zionists don’t deserve to live” at Columbia. 

All students should feel safe on their college campus, and attempting to reach peace overseas via spreading more violence and hatred locally is not a solution. But the fact is that many of these protests have been peaceful. Delegitimizing all students’ concerns and arguments regarding the ongoing violence based on the actions of some is a fallacy that fails to honor the nuanced thinking that is characteristic of an academic institution. 

So what are students’ concerns? What exactly do they want the outcomes of their protesting to be? 

Some students are calling on their student governments and administration to divest from organizations that have financial connections to Israel, especially when it comes to weapons manufacturing. Others are calling on their universities to entirely cut ties with Israel, including ceasing study abroad programs and ending academic collaboration with Israeli universities.

As mentioned above, ASUCD voted on a student government divestment months ago. However, the University of California at large put out a statement on April 26 opposing calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel, saying that “a boycott of this sort impinges on the academic freedom of our students and faculty and the unfettered exchange of ideas on our campuses.” They also noted that UC tuition and fees are not used for investment purposes.

Some of the student activists’ goals might be more complicated than others. Divesting endowments can be difficult, especially because much of this funding is often used to provide financial aid and scholarships to students, meaning that divesting or refusing to accept donations from certain companies could have a direct unintended negative impact on students. But protests with this call have succeeded before; in July 1986, the UC Regents voted to divest more than $3 billion from companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid government after more than a year of student protests.

Whether or not universities decide to divest from Israeli-tied companies, the continued calls from students for them to do so not only keep the conflict in the news, but also serve as a constant reminder of the fact that youth are aware of and engaged in conversation surrounding Israel and Palestine — an impact that shouldn’t be underestimated with it being an election year. 

This isn’t the first time nation-wide activism has spread across college campuses, and it won’t be the last. Regardless of what ends up happening at each of these schools, the administrations’ response to student protests matters. Are they going to take student concerns seriously? Are they going to negotiate and talk with student protestors in good faith? 

College campuses in the United States are a microcosm of the divisive but passionate political activism on the rise in today’s youth. How each university chooses to facilitate or hinder that, regardless of how complex the issues at hand are, is going to be a part of those institutions’ legacy — whether they like it or not. 


Written by: The Editorial Board



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