(NEW YORK)— In response to student protest at Columbia University and elsewhere, PEN America released the following statement:

“As campuses across the country are roiled by massive, pro-Palestinian student protests, we call on campus leaders to adhere to the following key principles: safeguarding free speech and students’ right to engage in peaceful protest; addressing alarming incidents of antisemitism and standing firm against hate; and ensuring a campus environment that is safe and open to all.  Balancing these essential responsibilities is a daunting but necessary task.

PEN America has long insisted that student protests–a significant and long-standing feature of campus life–should be zealously protected, even when they are contentious, and we are alarmed by cases where campus leaders have been quick to take punitive action and crack down on peaceful protest. Columbia University’s quick move to call in the NYPD last week to shut down protests that had remained peaceful was disturbing; rather than bringing the temperature down, it has escalated the situation on campus and caused ripple effects around the country. Columbia’s shift to virtual classes and their campus closure place limits on students’ learning and are unfortunate results of a conflagration that stemmed in part from the administration’s failure to seek out alternatives to shutting down student protest. The fact that this decision came in the context of mounting political pressure on Columbia’s leadership, including in a congressional hearing the previous day, raises further concerns about the degree to which the administration is making decisions that prioritize students’ rights to free expression on campus. The Columbia President offered little defense of robust protections for academic freedom for faculty and students during the hearing, and faced pressure to crack down on pro-Palestinian students for their speech and viewpoints; but political pressure must not drive campus leaders’ decision making.

We also fervently condemn the antisemitic harassment and intimidation that has targeted students at Columbia and on other campuses. It is horrifying to see Jewish students targeted with hateful slurs and blatant bigotry in some instances, with many feeling unsafe on their campuses because of their religious identity. It seems clear that at Columbia, at least some of this harassment was carried out not by students but by people from outside the campus community. But regardless of the source or the target, campus administrators must fulfill their responsibility to ensure the safety of all students by acting quickly and firmly in response to threats and harassment and vocally condemning hate and antisemitism. Hate and harassment are intended to intimidate and silence their targets, and are themselves anathema to an environment of open discourse and learning. 

While reports of violence targeting students on campuses thus far appear to be limited, campus leaders must also make clear that there will be zero tolerance for violence, and respond rapidly to ensure student safety if it occurs. 

As campuses continue to see growing student mobilization, we call on campus administrators to uphold their obligations to safeguard peaceful protest and free expression; protect students from harassment and physical threats; and ensure the university can keep running uninterrupted. Student protests should be permitted and protected up until the point where they cross over into harassment or substantially disrupt university operations. Even protests that might not adhere to the letter of campus policies should be permitted for a reasonable period so long as they are peaceful and do not prevent students from attending classes. If these thresholds are crossed, campus leaders have the right to enforce reasonable time, place, and manner policies that do not choke off protests but rather ensure the safe ongoing operations of the campus. Even handed, viewpoint neutral enforcement of such policies can help safeguard free expression. 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.

Universities should seek every pathway to de-escalate and to engage students in dialogue before resorting to any use of police force; even in such cases, campus police should be engaged rather than local or state authorities wherever possible. Students engaging in the long tradition of peaceful civil disobedience should be treated humanely by trained security officers. For students who face disciplinary consequences for violations of protest policies, those must be proportionate and not overly punitive, ideally offering students opportunities for learning and rapprochement. Universities must also not engage in collective punishment, but should distinguish between peaceful protesters and anyone who engages in harassment or violence. The agreement reached overnight at Columbia offers a useful blueprint for how engagements with student leaders can bear fruit, with protests permitted to continue for now, and student leaders having committed to barring harassment and restricting external participation in the protest. 

While there is no easy path forward, campuses must ultimately remain spaces for learning and vociferous, even contentious discourse. We urge campus leaders at Columbia University and around the country to stand firm in defense of the values of freedom of expression and academic freedom and to engage with a diversity of student leaders and faculty to de-escalate situations where tensions are high and lay the groundwork for rebuilding campus cultures of trust, openness, and mutual respect.”

Relevant PEN America resources include:

Protests on Campus | PEN America

Tips for communicating with student activists | PEN America

If student protests involve civil disobedience | PEN America

Handling Rising Antisemitism on Campuses – PEN America

(Accompanying photo outside the Columbia University gates in New York City by SWinxy) 

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