Free Speech

Antisemitism on Display at Columbia University “Encampment”

Antisemitism has been a problem on university campuses for years but has been especially prevalent since Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. Last month, I wrote about an antisemitic riot on UC Berkeley’s campus, and prior to that about Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania’s presidents resigning after their responses to antisemitism on their campuses.

Now, Columbia University in New York City, another Ivy League school, is grappling with its own antisemitism problem, which has grown increasingly worse over the past few weeks.

Last Wednesday, April 17, Columbia University President Dr. Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, as well as the dean of Columbia Law school and co-chairs of the Board of Trustees, testified in front of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on their response to antisemitism on campus.

Throughout the hearing, President Shafik was unable to provide a clear answer to many questions asked of her by members of Congress, such as whether or not a professor that called the acts of terrorism by Hamas on October 7 “awesome” and “a stunning victory” was removed from his position as Chair of the Academic Review Committee or if phrases used by students on her campus, such as “long live the Intifada,” are antisemitic.

Shafik also said that she had not seen anti-Jewish protests on her campus. Meanwhile, during this hearing, anti-Israel students began setting up their “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on Columbia’s campus, calling for the university to divest from Israel. Students set up tents and declared they will camp on the campus’ lawn until their demands are met. This began an unfortunate trend of encampments forming on university campuses, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, and the University of Michigan.

Blatant antisemitism has been on display at Columbia’s encampment. One protester held up a sign calling Jewish counter protesters “Al-Qasam’s next targets.” Protesters also chanted “we are Hamas” and “long live Hamas” and for “10,000 more” October 7 terrorist attacks on Israelis.

On Thursday, April 18, NYPD arrested 108 students involved in the encampment protest for trespassing, including Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s daughter. Despite this, students set up an encampment again, but this time, the university refuses to call for police to remove them.

Columbia decided to make classes remote on Monday, April 22 because they could not guarantee student safety while this encampment continues and additional protesters gather outside the campus. On Wednesday, April 23, as the encampment protest has continued, they decided to make all classes hybrid for the rest of the semester to keep students off campus.

A rabbi at the university sent a message on WhatsApp to over 290 Jewish students recommending they go home until campus is safe. Columbia also deactivated Jewish Israeli Professor Shai Davidai’s ID because they also could not ensure his safety as he has been speaking out against antisemitism on campus.

Over 50 Columbia Law School faculty members signed a letter in support of the students who were suspended and arrested last week, stating that arresting students for protesting is disrespecting “basic rule-of-law values.” As a private university, Columbia is well within its right to shut down the encampment on campus and suspend students involved.

However, even if Columbia were a public university, they can also regulate speech through time, place, and manner restrictions if they are content-neutral, narrowly tailored to achieve a significant government interest, and allow alternatives for students to express their message, as upheld by the Supreme Court.

The university notified students ahead of time that they cannot camp on the lawn because it is disruptive to campus life. This applies to any form of protest involving camping overnight, so it passes this three-prong test. Students also have other avenues to protest and express their opinion that does not involve forming an encampment. Therefore, it is not anti-free speech to prohibit students from participating in this form of protest. In fact, allowing the encampments to continue has stifled the speech of dissenting students and professors since they cannot use the lawn or safely attend class.

University presidents are faced with the task of protecting free speech and ensuring the safety of their students. However, President Shafik of Columbia University is failing at both. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s (FIRE) 2024 Free Speech Rankings, Columbia ranks 214 out of 248 and has been given an overall score of 34 out of 100. Meanwhile, like other Ivy League university presidents, she continues to incorrectly use free speech as an excuse as to why she cannot keep her students safe.

President Shafik and all university presidents must do better to ensure the safety of their students and stop fostering antisemitism on their campuses.

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Free Speech