Colleges across California are suspending student protesters, a move that’s evicted some from housing, barred others from final exams, and left scores navigating a high-stakes disciplinary process more commonly reserved for students accused of toting a gun to campus or raping a classmate in their dorm room.

Some of those facing punishment, including 40 students at UC San Diego, were slapped with “interim suspension” notices following mass arrests at protest encampments. But many others who avoided arrest face the same penalty for reasons that are far less clear.

One USC first-year student, who asked to be referred to by a single initial — C. — out of fear of reprisal from the university, said they were slapped with an interim suspension on Sunday and given 24 hours to leave the dorms, despite never being detained or arrested as a part of their activism.

“I’ve been surfing around friends’ couches trying to figure out if I’m going to be able to get a place to live in the summer,” they said. “If (the suspension is upheld), I’ll lose a scholarship that’s covering the plurality of my tuition here.”

Universities rely on campus discipline to manage a wide range of student behavior, from plagiarism to bullying, brawls to binge drinking, hazing to sexual assault. Experts say it can also be a valuable alternative to police involvement. But the consequences are still severe.

Some familiar with the process were shocked after USC and UC San Diego handed down scores of interim suspensions this week, saying the penalty had previously been reserved for serious and imminently dangerous misconduct.

“You very rarely see these interim suspension cases,” said Sukham Sidhu, who heads of the Office of Student Advocacy at UC San Diego and has spent her undergraduate career representing peers through campus disciplinary proceedings. “The only times I’ve seen it imposed are in cases of physical assault.”

A spokesperson for UC Riverside said an interim suspension was recently handed to a student who was caught on campus with an assault rifle.

Schools are likely within their rights to suspend those who have overstepped their free speech rights, either by threatening public safety or violating campus conduct codes, some legal experts said. But they warned that administrators should proceed with caution.

“You don’t want to shy away from interim suspensions where there’s a real threat of violence,” said Alex Morey, head of the campus rights advocacy program at the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “But you don’t want to start throwing (them) around just because you want to send a message.”

Most California schools facing large encampment protests declined to say exactly how many interim suspensions they’d issued, or detail the reasons protesters had been suspended, citing federal privacy rules.

But data they did share was telling.

At UC San Diego, interim suspensions surged from 16 all of last year to 40 in a single week amid the mass arrests on campus Monday.

Additional interim suspensions have quietly been sent out to protesters who were not arrested, Sidhu said.

“The very first one I heard about, the student was just seen entering the encampment and there’s no evidence they stayed there,” she said. “When I heard they were interim suspended for that, I was like, ‘What?!’”

Officials at Cal Poly Humbolt said 72 students were suspended in connection with the encampment there, but the school had softened the punishment.

“The University included a campus restriction, which still allows students to live in on-campus housing and attend classes online,” said campus spokesperson Aileen Yoo. “The University is trying to provide flexibility because these are extraordinary circumstances, the sheer volume of cases are still being investigated, and it’s the end of the year.”

Not so at USC, where the conditions of the suspensions were even more muddled.

Suspension letters compiled by USC’s Divest from Death Coalition, which helped organize the encampment, included a wide range of accusations, from stealing wood pallets from behind the USC Bookstore to fortify the encampment, to being part of a group that hung an unauthorized banner from a library window.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion and murkiness in this process,” said Devin Griffths, a professor of English and comparative literature at USC. “One student is really actively trying to understand what he’s been suspended for.”

While those suspended this week at UC San Diego said they have already received hearing dates for their interim suspensions to be reviewed and potentially dismissed, most at USC still do not know when the same process might begin for them, or what consequences they will endure in the interim.

Alec Rose, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in campus discipline, said interim suspensions could be warranted if “imposed on students who had done something extremely dangerous.”

But, the lawyer added, “If they just told everybody who was protesting, ‘You’re all on interim suspension and have to leave campus immediately,’ I fail to see how that would be justified.”

Such a move could also leave universities open to charges they’ve unfairly targeted pro-Palestinian protesters, even if their actions would otherwise be permissible under free speech rules.

Both the 1st Amendment and state law protect campus activists from being punished simply for what they say, although the free speech protection only extends fully to public university campuses, with private schools given more leeway to impose limits.

The law does allow restrictions on “time, place and manner” of otherwise protected campus speech, which has left encampments vulnerable to clampdowns in ways more traditional forms of protest are not.

Allowing pro-Palestinian encampments to remain for weeks on end could set a precedent for future causes that students and administrators find less sympathetic, or even outright hateful, warned Eugene Volokh, a professor in the UCLA School of Law and a 1st Amendment expert.

“Not only is it legitimate, as a practical matter I think it is required,” he said of removing encampments.

Allowing the protesters to remain overnight also creates a 24/7 security obligation for the school — one few campuses are ready to meet, as the mob attack at UCLA’s encampment last week dramatically showed.

Some schools issued disciplinary warnings ahead of clearing encampments. But others have issued suspensions after the fact, targeting those who were arrested as well as those who were not.

USC protesters were particularly upset over suspensions they say followed a meeting in which President Carol Folt explicitly promised not to use academic discipline to quell unrest.

“When laws and policies that apply to everyone are repeatedly and flagrantly violated — there must be consequences,” Folt said in a statement. “The university has initiated disciplinary review processes for individuals who have violated both our policies and the law. We will take any further actions required to maintain campus safety and security, consistent with our legal obligations.”

Andrew T. Guzman, USC’s senior vice president for academic affairs, told protesters Wednesday that graduating seniors would be allowed to participate in commencement ceremonies while under interim suspension, but did not address housing, scholarships or other discipline terms.

For C., the USC student protester facing suspension and eviction from the dorms, that means limbo over summer school, including a new housing assignment slated to begin just days from now. For some international students, it could mean being forced to leave the country.

“Many of these actions don’t even seem grounds for suspension in the first place,” they lamented. “The reason we were out there and the reason many of us are facing these charges is that over 30,000 have been killed in Gaza and Rafah’s being bombed right now.”


(Times staff writer Angie Orellana Hernandez contributed to this report.)


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