Thinking About College Protests In 2024

Jun 1st, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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For those of us who lived through the anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s, or the Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s, the current tumult—and the way it has collided with broader social and political upheaval—echoes some especially tense times in our country’s history.  But, these demonstrations also raise a profoundly important question:  Why has the war in Gaza so galvanized American college students in the first place, compared with other crises or conflicts where pressure on American leaders may have had more potential for effect? It seems puzzling that the uproar was never so intense about climate, abortion rights, immigration, Afghanistan, or the disastrous war in Iraq, in which more than 4,400 Americans died, along with at least 200,000 Iraqi civilians.   What explains the heat and extremism on these campuses?

Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, posits several important arguments concerning these protests.  Here are a few of his observations:

  • “At Columbia University, demonstrators chanted support for terrorist organizations, burning the American flag and waving Hezbollah’s. They called for Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades to attack again, and taunted Jewish students: ‘Never forget the 7th of October,’ and ‘That will happen. . . 10,000 more times!’. . . What is most discouraging is the lack of attention to what the protesters are demanding, which goes far beyond a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.  Take the March 28 re-election fundraiser for President Biden in New York featuring Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, which was disrupted by shouting in the auditorium. That made headlines, yet the protesters’ chants, including ‘Down with the USA’ and the ‘Al-Qassam are on their way,’ a reference to Hamas’s military wing, received no coverage. Neither did their physical threats to attendees outside, a common tactic. Also ignored are the flags and posters of designated terrorist organizations—HamasHezbollahthe Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—displayed at protests in the U.S.Canada and the U.K.
  • “Major terror organizations have expressed support for these protests and disruptive actions, which have long been a key part of Hamas’s plan to win hearts and minds in the West. As early as a decade ago, during the July-August 2014 Israel-Gaza war, Hamas’s Interior Ministry issued guidelines to social-media activists on framing events for a Western audience.  It is no coincidence that official statements by Hamas and major jihadist groups about the protests are nearly identical. The statements seem like talking points for pressuring U.S. and Western decision makers. They appear to be working. On April 4 President Biden, under massive pressure for supporting Israel, warned Israel of major changes to U.S. policy if it didn’t ease its military campaign in Gaza. Hamas seized on the U.S.-Israel dispute with a statement calling on ‘all free people of the world’ to protest.  A blatant example of jihadist talking points came from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on March 13, when he lauded the political activity of American Muslims in Michigan as ‘very influential.’ He said of the ‘many people demonstrating in America’ that ‘we should salute them’. . . Every senior Hamas leader has also acknowledged the importance of the protests and said that influencing U.S. and Western policy is part of the organization’s strategy for destroying Israel. Khaled Mashal, the Hamas leader abroad, on Oct. 10 urged supporters to protest ‘in cities everywhere.’ On Oct. 31, he said that the organization’s friends ‘on the global left’ were responding to its appeal. On March 27, he called for millions to take to the streets in protest, saying there had been an unprecedented shift in global public opinion. . . Six months after the attack on Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and others aren’t merely cheering those protesting in the streets. They are working with and grooming activists in the U.S. and the West, through meetings, online interviews and podcasts.”

Clearly, expressing criticism of Israeli military action is of course entirely legitimate in a democracy like the United States. There is a right to dissent and a right to protest. But, as Carl Trueman, professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, argues “the nature of these particular protests reveals something very disturbing. It is clear that they are not motivated by legitimate concern for Arab and Muslim lives, whatever the rhetoric. If they were, then Israel would hardly be the only, or even primary, target. The death toll from over a decade of government-led bloodshed in Syria is catastrophic but has not gripped the imagination of campus activists. The slaughter there continues to this day, though one could be forgiven for not knowing this, given the lack of media and student interest in the conflict. Rather, these campus protests are motivated by hatred of Jews. One can offer the specious dodge that Hamas’s 2017 manifesto speaks of Zionists rather than Jews as the enemy. But Hamas thinks Israel is the result of a Jewish conspiracy. To replace ‘Jews’ and ‘Judaism’ with Zionists’ and ‘Zionism’ is thus to change words but not to change direction. Anti-Semitism is the motivation of both Hamas and the student activists who care only for Muslim lives when they are threatened by Israeli rather than Syrian bombs.”

Still, it is important to affirm that Americans have the right to protest Israeli military action and American support for Israel. Such a right is key to a healthy and well-functioning democracy. As has often been said, it is what distinguishes countries like America from places like Iran, “where sixteen-year-olds who remove their hijabs in protest at cultural restrictions are raped and murdered, not lionized by the media.” Such protests also provide important means of holding those in power to account.  This would include protests on college campuses.

David French, an evangelical Christian attorney and columnist, offers important counsel on how to think about such protests:   “The simplest way of outlining the ideal university policy toward protest is to say that it should protect free speech, respect civil disobedience and uphold the rule of law. That means universities should protect the rights of students and faculty members on a viewpoint-neutral basis, and they should endeavor to make sure that every member of the campus community has the same access to campus facilities and resources.  That also means showing no favoritism among competing ideological groups in access to classrooms, in the imposition of campus penalties and in access to educational opportunities. All groups should have equal rights to engage in the full range of protected speech, including by engaging in rhetoric that’s hateful to express and painful to hear.  Still, reasonable time, place and manner restrictions are indispensable in this context. Time, place and manner restrictions are content-neutral legal rules that enable a diverse community to share the same space and enjoy equal rights.  Noise limits can protect the ability of students to study and sleep. Restricting the amount of time any one group can demonstrate on the limited open spaces on campus permits other groups to use the same space. If one group is permitted to occupy a quad indefinitely, for example, then that action by necessity excludes other organizations from the same ground. In that sense, indefinitely occupying a university quad isn’t simply a form of expression; it also functions as a form of exclusion. Put most simply, student groups should be able to take turns using public spaces, for an equal amount of time and during a roughly similar portion of the day.”

Furthermore, “Civil disobedience is distinct from First Amendment-protected speech. It involves both breaking an unjust law and accepting the consequences. There is a long and honorable history of civil disobedience in the United States, but true civil disobedience ultimately honors and respects the rule of law.  In a 1965 appearance on Meet the Press,  the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the principle perfectly: ‘When one breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust, he must do it openly, he must do it cheerfully, he must do it lovingly, he must do it civilly — not uncivilly — and he must do it with a willingness to accept the penalty.’”

  • “But what we’re seeing on a number of campuses isn’t free expression, nor is it civil disobedience. It’s outright lawlessness. No matter the frustration of campus activists or their desire to be heard, true civil disobedience shouldn’t violate the rights of others. Indefinitely occupying a quad violates the rights of other speakers to use the same space. Relentless, loud protest violates the rights of students to sleep or study in peace. And when protests become truly threatening or intimidating, they can violate the civil rights of other students, especially if those students are targeted on the basis of their race, sex, color or national origin.  The result of lawlessness is chaos and injustice. Other students can’t speak. Other students can’t learn. Teachers and administrators can’t do their jobs.”
  • “None of this is new. All of it creates a culture of impunity for the most radical students. Disruptive protesters are rarely disciplined, or they get mere slaps on the wrist. They’re hailed as heroes by many of their professors. Administrators look the other way as protesters pitch their tents on the quad — despite clear violations of university policy. Then, days later, the same administrators look at the tent city on campus, wring their hands, and ask, ‘How did this spiral out of control?’”
  • “There is a better way. When universities can actually recognize and enforce the distinctions among free speech, civil disobedience and lawlessness, they can protect both the right of students to protest and the rights of students to study and learn in peace.  In March a small band of pro-Palestinian students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville pushed past a security guard so aggressively that they injured him, walked into a university facility that was closed to protest and briefly occupied the building. The university had provided ample space for protest, and both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students had been speaking and protesting peacefully on campus since Oct. 7.  But these students weren’t engaged in free speech. Nor were they engaged in true civil disobedience. Civil disobedience does not include assault, and within hours the university shut them down. Three students were arrested in the assault on the security guard, and one was arrested on charges of vandalism. More than 20 students were subjected to university discipline, three were expelled, and one was suspended.  The message was clear: Every student can protest, but protest has to be peaceful and lawful. In taking this action, Vanderbilt was empowered by its posture of institutional neutrality. It does not take sides in matters of public dispute. Its fundamental role is to maintain a forum for speech, not to set the terms of the debate and certainly not to permit one side to break reasonable rules that protect education and safety on campus.”
  • “Vanderbilt is not alone in its commitment to neutrality. The University of Chicago has long adhered to the Kalven principles, a statement of university neutrality articulated in 1967 by a committee led by one of the most respected legal scholars of the last century, Harry Kalven Jr. At their heart, the Kalven principles articulate the view that ‘the instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars.’”

Years of uneven application of speech codes, of unequal attention to those offended by speech, have left students, faculty, and even presidents seeming uncertain what the rules are and how to enforce them.  It is also clear that trying to appease this law-breaking only encourages more of it.  Furthermore, the disorder on many of our college campuses reflects the growing disorder and chaos in our broader culture, our politics and our floundering media world.  It evidences a culture that has lost its way; a culture in need of a spiritual awakening.

See Steve Stalinsky in the Wall Street Journal (23 April 2024); David French, “Colleges Have Gone off the Deep End. There Is a Way Out” in the New York Times (28 April 2024); Carl R. Trueman “What the Pro-Palestinian Campus Protests Are Really About” First Things (2 May 2024).

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