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By Not Acting Sooner, Universities Failed on Protests

By Not Acting Sooner, Universities Failed on Protests

Members of law enforcement take down a banner in a Pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA on Thursday in Los Angeles. The camp was declared 'unlawful' by the university and many protestors have been detained. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Susan Estrich By Thursday, 02 May 2024 01:58 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

The helicopters were whirring in the sky last night over the UCLA campus as violent clashes broke out on the ground between pro- and anti-Palestinian demonstrators at the on-campus encampment that UCLA had tolerated for far longer than it should have.

A university's first responsibility is to educate, and that means creating a safe and secure environment, which UCLA plainly failed to do. Classes were canceled today, a clear sign of failure.

There is no excuse for the violence. Period. Stop.

As the Jewish Federation Los Angeles was quick to point out, it was "appalled" by the violent attack on the encampment: "The abhorrent actions of a few counterprotesters last night do not represent the Jewish community or our values. We believe in peaceful, civic discourse."

"Peaceful, civic discourse" is not what's been taking place at campuses across the country. It does not include setting up encampments, taking over buildings, and harassing and threatening students. It does not mean a license to ignore reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on protests, or loudly threatening imminent violence.

Private universities are not subject to the First Amendment. For all the talk about "free speech," the First Amendment prohibits only state action to limit speech rights. And the protections it does provide, at schools like UCLA, have long been subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions and limitations on speech that poses a clear and present danger or an imminent threat of harm.

That isn't to say students and faculty have no rights. Virtually every university recognizes that its responsibility to protect students includes a responsibility to protect their freedom of expression as well as their personal security.

It's a balance, but not an impossible one. UCLA, like other universities, has rules and regulations about where and when protests may be held so as to respect that balance.

Those rules have been clearly ignored by protestors there and across the country, who have been taking over libraries and classroom buildings, disrupting the schools' educational responsibilities, and harassing and intimidating Jewish students.

The right response is not to have counterprotestors move in and try to take down the encampments. It is for university officials to do that, with the help of law enforcement, if that is what is necessary.

Disciplining students for violating university rules designed to protect everyone's rights, and foster an environment in which students can freely and safely pursue their educations, is not an extreme measure but an appropriate one.

Instead, we have situations where the overwhelming majority of students, who want to simply go to class (and graduate in peace), are being cowered into submission by a small and strident minority (of as many nonstudents as students) who school administrators seem afraid to take on.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said on Tuesday that, while many demonstrators have been peaceful, others have used tactics that have "frankly been shocking and shameful. We have seen instances of violence completely at odds with our values as an institution dedicated to respect and mutual understanding. In other cases, students on their way to class have been physically blocked from accessing parts of the campus."

The hard question for Block, and for other campus officials, is why they didn't do anything to deal with these "shocking and shameful" tactics until the counterprotestors moved in and took matters into their own hands and there was no choice but to call in the police?

As Block himself admitted, the incidents had put many on campus, "especially our Jewish students," in a state of anxiety and fear.

Dan Gold, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, said that Jewish students have been harassed and intimidated around the encampment and that encampment monitors denied access to nearby walkways to at least 10 Jewish students after asking them if they were Zionists. Gold said a Star of David with the words "step here" was drawn in the area.

Other professors took issue with Block's focus on the anxiety and fear felt by Jewish students, pointing out that Muslim students as well were suffering. Great — UCLA has been failing everyone except the pro-Palestinian protestors, and so have too many other universities who should have nipped this in the bud when the rules were broken.

Susan Estrich is a politician, professor, lawyer and writer. She has appeared on the pages of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Ms. Estrich has also appeared as a television commentator on CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS and NBC. Her focus is on legal matters, women's concerns, national politics, and social issues. Read Susan Estrich's Reports — More Here.

© Creators Syndicate Inc.

It's a balance, but not an impossible one. UCLA, like other universities, has rules and regulations about where and when protests may be held so as to respect that balance.
campus protests
Thursday, 02 May 2024 01:58 PM
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