In mid-April, the University of Southern California banned the school valedictorian from giving a commencement address for the first time in its history, following a pressure campaign by outside pro-Israel groups.

The university cited unspecified “security” risks. But valedictorian Asna Tabassum has said she believes it had something to do with the fact that she’s Muslim and has a minor in “resistance to genocide.” The administration apparently feared Tabassum would reference Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza. Rather than let her speak, officials silenced her.

Not long after, Columbia University shut down a pro-Palestinian sit-in on campus. Students set up tents on the quad, demanding the university divest from companies linked to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. The administration called the New York police to the campus. Officers arrested more than 100 students, even though police admitted students presented no danger and were peaceful. Since then, hundreds more students have been taken over the quad. The encampment has been rebuilt.

Gaza solidarity encampments have gone up across the country — from USC and Michigan to Harvard, Emory and the University of Chicago. Universities have long been America’s conscience, a bellwether for youth opinion. They are where we see generational shifts most clearly. When universities treat protests as attacks on public order, they create a repressive atmosphere that bodes ill for free speech in the country as a whole. Calling police to arrest students who set up protest tents is a betrayal of our nation’s commitment to freedom of expression.

For students, this isn’t just about free speech; it’s about upholding promises of human rights and democracy that America claims to hold dear.

The last time U.S. universities witnessed protests on this scale was 1968, amid rising resistance to the Vietnam War, when Columbia also called the NYPD to the campus to arrest students.

Today, Palestinians are at the center of national debate. Just as during Vietnam, our government is supporting human rights abuses on a horrifying scale. And again, students are at the front line demanding an end to violence. Nearly 50% of American adults from 18 to 29 years old believe Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, according to an Economist/YouGov poll conducted earlier this year.

In contrast, 81-year-old President Joe Biden has sent Israel billions in military support. He has repeatedly declined to impose conditions even as Israel has bombed hospitals, killed aid workers and slaughtered families.

When students see their tax dollars used to kill — more than 34,000 Palestinians at last count, not including thousands more buried under the rubble — they are right to question our government’s policies.

But not only are universities silencing them. Congress is pushing administrators to go further, with a bipartisan consensus forming around punishing students who question pro-Israel policies. Biden and Congress have repeatedly linked campus protests to antisemitism. But not only is antisemitism firmly rejected by most activists, groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace can be found leading protests as part of diverse student coalitions. At Columbia, the Gaza solidarity camp hosted a Passover Seder, with Jewish students sharing the holiday’s liberation story with peers.

Universities should be defending students’ right to question political consensus, not aiding their repression. And for free speech to thrive, students must be protected from harassment. Universities must provide that space — not with rhetoric but with action.

As a University of Chicago student, I saw the administration regularly call security guards to surround us when we held campus protests. Yet, the university presented itself as a bastion of free speech to the nation through the so-called Chicago principles.

But when outside pro-Israel groups put up posters targeting students and professors who’d advocated for Palestinian human rights with false accusations of supporting terrorism, the university failed to take action against those responsible. When an online blacklist circulated labeling students as antisemitic in an attempt to prevent them from gaining future employment, the university again declined to act.

What are free speech principles worth if universities fail to stand up to hate groups targeting students for saying what they think?

Over the last few months, pro-Israel harassment tactics have gone into overdrive. We’ve seen a level of attacks on students previously unimaginable — from trucks covered in students’ faces roaming near campuses to online harassment campaigns.

For years, I’ve conducted research on protest in the Middle East. Universities are crucial sites of dissent for activists, places to organize and envision social change. But when administrations cave in to government pressure, tolerate outside harassment, and invite police to crush protests, they not only surrender an important space of freedom, but they also sacrifice their students’ lives and futures.

This is what is now occurring across America.

At Columbia, protesters were not only arrested; they were suspended and some evicted from their housing. Their arrests will go on their permanent record and will inhibit access to future employment, potentially condemning them to poverty if they’re unable to pay back student loans. The university didn’t just silence them; it potentially robbed them of a future. All in response to using their voices to express outrage over human rights abuses.

Is this how America should treat its young people?

Our universities must remain a bulwark of freedom against this onslaught — places to critically reflect on our role in the world rather than silencing those who question orthodoxies. It is not too late. Administrations can still change course. They must lead the way out of this darkness by protecting students — and creating a campus atmosphere that welcomes debate rather than silencing it.

USC must reverse its ban and let the valedictorian address graduates. Columbia must apologize for silencing student voices and should consider students’ demands. Other universities must allow students to hold events and protests questioning their complicity in events in the Palestinian territories.

And Biden must listen to the voices of the largest student movement America has seen in decades — and take seriously their demands to cut aid to Israel.


Alex Shams is a writer and political anthropologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.


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