ISHR Condemns the Repression of Student Protests at Columbia

Sunday, April 21, 2024

21 April, 2024

As the Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, as a scholar of human rights, and as a teacher, I am outraged and heartbroken that the senior administration of Columbia University have turned the forces of police power on more than a hundred students exercising their human and Constitutional freedoms of speech and opinion and their rights to assembly and to protest peacefully. This extraordinary and irregular police action by the Columbia administration not only violates legal norms of due process, the letter and spirit of Columbia statutes on shared governance, and fundamental human rights principles; it also shatters campus trust, longstanding Columbia traditions, and precious community values.

As an institute which supports human rights advocates around the world and on campus, which promotes peace and understanding, and which educates hundreds of students each year in the norms, principles, and practices of equality, nondiscrimination, human dignity, social justice, and tolerance, we at ISHR condemn the repressive actions of Columbia’s senior administration. 

The legal and statutory grounds for the police action were tenuous. On April 18, President Shafik took personal responsibility for the decision to instigate the mass arrests on the Columbia campus by dozens of riot-equipped NYPD officers. The President announced that these students “face suspension pending investigation,” a statement that raises serious questions about due process. In her letter to the New York Police Department requesting removal of the individuals in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, President Shafik cited her Emergency Powers under Section 444f of the University Statutes, declaring that the encampment “pose[s] a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University”—language that the NYPD Chief of Patrol subsequently disavowed at a press conference. He added that “the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.”
Although the protest encampment was unsanctioned, it is important to recognize that the President’s written request to the NYPD did not assert that the students posed “a clear and present danger to persons” or property at the University, as stipulated in Section 444f of the University Statutes. Additionally, Columbia students only received notification of their suspensions more than twenty four hours after the arrests (thus obviating the cause for a trespassing charge). Their suspension notices do not claim that the students represented a clear and present danger to the Columbia community, but they do cite “violations of law/arrest.” Thus, NYPD arrests for trespassing were premised on the students’ being suspended, while suspensions are now premised partly on those arrests. 
Moreover, the President did not meaningfully consult with the Executive Committee of the University Senate prior to ordering the mass arrests, as required by Section 444f of the Statutes. Instead, she disregarded the unanimous opposition of the faculty and students on the Senate Executive Committee who refused to assent to her request to bring in police forces.
The President of the University has, of course, a justifiable duty to take rare unilateral, even perhaps forceful, action to protect students, faculty, and staff from violence and physical harm in the event of an extreme emergency. However, a hundred nonviolent students in tents calling for an end to war, mass suffering, and starvation in Gaza—no matter how inconvenient the students or their opinions may be to the Columbia administration, or how controversial their opinions may be to some, or how much pressure from politicians—does not remotely rise to the level of such an emergency. 
An institute such as ours must abhor all violations of human rights and value all human life—full stop. We must stand with those who put themselves on the line defending such values. As much as we condemn the arrests of our students and the repression of speech, protest, and assembly on campus, we likewise condemn all forms of discrimination, racism, sexism, and bigotry, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, whether it happens in an international political context or on Columbia’s campus. 
As Director of ISHR and a senior member of the Columbia faculty, I will continue to do everything in my power to defend the rights of our students, just as ISHR, for 46 years, has supported the defense of the rights of those facing repression and suffering elsewhere. 
The Institute for the Study of Human Rights joins with the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, the American Association of University Professors at Columbia and Barnard, and others in demanding that the suspension of the arrested students be immediately rescinded; their rights of access to campus, classes, housing, and other resources restored; NYPD charges of trespassing dropped; and these undue punishments expunged from their records. 
Download ISHR's statement here