(NEW YORK)— In response to growing reports of the use of police and excessive force against campus protests, along with calls for National Guard involvement, PEN America released the following statement:

“We continue to be deeply alarmed by the decision of campus administrators across the country to deploy the police to detain, arrest, and remove peaceful student protesters. The use of excessive force against students and faculty on multiple occasions is shocking and unacceptable. Engaging police to deal with peaceful protests represents an escalation that is inimical to the exercise of free expression and to a learning environment, and further raises the risk of use of excessive force; except in extreme cases, the use of outside police against student protesters is the wrong decision and only serves to ratchet up tensions. While campus leaders have a responsibility for the safety of all on campus, threatening arrest and deploying police against peaceful protesters is a severe and drastic measure that in many cases leads to further disruption of operations. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the politics of the protesters, the precedents these actions are setting should raise alarm. We urge campus leaders to remember that even contentious student protests should be zealously protected.

As protests continue, we are especially concerned about political leaders calling for National Guard involvement. We are mindful of the tragic Kent State University protests in 1970 and echo the concerns that are being raised by historians, free expression experts, and advocates that conditions are increasingly primed for violence.

The fact that peaceful protests may involve rhetoric or slogans that some students and members of the campus community find deeply abhorrent or offensive cannot be viewed as justification for calling in outside police or the National Guard. It does, however, pose challenges to campus authorities who are charged with ensuring a safe and inclusive environment for students. We encourage campus leaders to urgently consider affirmative steps they can take to address antisemitism and anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hate on their campuses without infringing on freedom of expression. Where violence or hate crimes do occur, campus leaders and relevant authorities must act swiftly to ensure student safety and hold those responsible fully accountable.

While we encourage a broad interpretation of free expression that includes high tolerance for peaceful civil disobedience, campuses have the right to enforce reasonable time, place, and manner policies that are viewpoint neutral, narrowly tailored, and evenly applied. Reasonable, predetermined parameters for assembly can allow those who may feel targeted or menaced by demonstrations to avoid encountering them, lessening friction and mitigating calls to shut down protests entirely.

Those who engage in civil disobedience are actively choosing to break such policies or laws in service of their goal; prior to enforcement of those policies, administrators must issue clear warnings about the consequences. Those consequences should be proportional to the acts that trigger them and should rarely involve police.

We urge public officials and university administrators to carefully recalibrate their approach to the widespread protests and acts of civil disobedience that have roiled campuses since Columbia called for the mass arrest of students on Friday, April 19. We call on them to redouble their efforts to protect freedom of speech on campus; to engage with protesters and student leaders rather than taking draconian action; to give clear warning of proportional consequences for civil disobedience; and to ensure a safe campus environment for all, including by effectively countering and vehemently condemning antisemitism and anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hate wherever these may occur.”

See also PEN America’s previous statement regarding student protests, including those at Columbia University.

Further resources for administrators and community members:

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], (201) 247-5057