Center for American Progress

Principles for Universities Responding to Campus Protests Over Gaza

Principles for Universities Responding to Campus Protests Over Gaza

In their response to student protests over the war in Gaza, colleges and universities must prioritize free speech, while ensuring that the safety of all students is protected.

Photo shows a historical black and white image portraying a group of Black students marching through a treed section of a university campus holding signs that read
Students march through the Kansas University campus on May 4, 1960, in a protest against the Big Eight student body presidents' conference resolution opposing civil rights sit-ins. (Getty/Bettmann Archive)

The student protests against the war in Gaza are growing rapidly; increasing in intensity; and taking place against the background of extraordinary external pressures exerted on university administrators. Congressional hearings and threats from donors have placed the harsh glare of the spotlight on campus leaders while concentrating enormous power against student activists. This is an environment rife for the disregard of cherished rights and well-established traditions of dissent. It is also a moment when democratic values can be distorted by political opportunists and fall prey to the polemics of toxic actors.

Student protest movements often create confusion between issues of academic freedom and constitutional rights, particularly given the vastly different rules and cultures that govern public and private colleges and universities. This moment brings the added weight of antisemitism and Islamophobia as critical concerns.

In this politically charged environment, there is an urgent need to establish a baseline to protect all students, faculty, and institutions of higher learning. That baseline might begin here: The Hamas attack was heinous; the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza have been reprehensible; free speech is necessary; hate speech is intolerable; true security must be enforced for all; peaceful protests are bedrock; and there must be accountability for actual lawbreaking.

Colleges are not the center of policymaking on the conflict between Israel and Palestinians.

We must also remember that colleges are not the center of policymaking on the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. This should be obvious but must be emphasized as TV cameras swarm campuses in search of every confrontation they might make viral on their platforms. This decadeslong and tragic conflict will not be resolved in negotiations with college trustees. In fact, centering the narrative of ungovernable students in liberal institutions distracts from the traumas in Gaza that require our full witness and advocacy in Washington, D.C.

From this follow these principles, which outline colleges’ responsibilities in responding to campus protests as they maintain the balance between protecting speech and ensuring safety. As a grounding ethos, we implore university officials to proactively seek dialogue with and understanding of student demands. These principles also highlight the role of federal agencies in supporting and protecting the rights of students and faculty.

  • Federal agencies must step up to defend the rights of students and faculty and to protect them from harm. The U.S. Department of Education, in partnership with other federal agencies, should put forward guidance around peaceful protests, engage in outreach, and, ultimately, conduct robust oversight where appropriate. Free speech is not only a central tenet of academic inquiry but is, of course, fundamental to the workings of our democracy. The federal government cannot abdicate responsibility to provide guidance in an era when illiberal, reactionary overreach has become commonplace in state capitals.
  • Colleges must both foster an environment where free speech is prized—including students’ ability to peacefully protest—and ensure that all students can learn free from intimidation, harassment, or threats of physical violence. And that means colleges must protect both the freedom of expression and the safety of Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Israeli, and Palestinian students alike. It’s incumbent on university administrations to ensure these foundational rights are protected. It is also the obligation of leadership to define hate speech and to transparently share codes of accountability with their communities before the eruption of incidents.
  • Protecting students from harm is paramount, and every student should be safe on campus. Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and police brutality have no place in schools. Much more can be done to build a climate of belonging that facilitates peaceful protest and resolves conflict before it escalates to threaten student safety. University officials should make efforts to understand and address student-activist concerns, diffuse tensions, and protect students from harm.
  • Peaceful demonstrations about the plight of Palestinians are justified. Demonstrations that target Jewish students are indefensible. Doxxing of Muslim and Arab students must be stopped. Israel’s military offensive in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians since October 7. Famine has taken hold in Gaza, where nearly all of the population is displaced. All of this has occurred while the United States continues to deliver lethal weapons to Israel. Jewish students should have empathy and protections in any demonstrations organized around the Israeli offensive following the horrific October 7 attacks. Where students peacefully express their outrage over preventable, mass suffering, they deserve support from their universities. Students attending public colleges and universities, in particular, are protected by the First Amendment. It has never been the case that it is difficult to distinguish between peaceful protest and hateful harassment. These have been conflated by political actors, but university administrators must lead with greater discernment. Furthermore, when protests shift to acts of civil disobedience, there is an obligation that all activists have to peacefully accept the consequences of this choice. However, institutions must still protect these activists from bodily harm.
  • Engaging law enforcement should be a last resort for responding to campus protests. Police response can escalate conflict, harden positions, and threaten student and staff safety. There is a well-documented and tragic history of such law enforcement-driven escalations on American campuses. Students of color are especially vulnerable in these interventions.

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Patrick Gaspard

President and Chief Executive Officer, Center for American Progress


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