People protest the suspension of Columbia University student groups

People protest the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia University on November 20, 2023 in New York City.

(Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

NYCLU to Sue If Columbia Won't Reinstate Pro-Palestinian Campus Groups

"Universities should be havens for robust debate, discussion, and learning—not sites of censorship where administrators, donors, and politicians squash political discourse they don't approve of," said the head of the NYCLU.

The New York Civil Liberties Union revealed Friday that it warned Columbia University of plans to take legal action if two suspended student groups opposed to Israel's genocidal war on the Gaza Strip aren't reinstated by March 1.

Amid a crackdown on criticism of Israel at educational institutions nationwide, Columbia leadership in November bypassed existing procedures for campus organizations and unilaterally suspended the university's chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) for an "unauthorized" protest of the war.

"Universities should be havens for robust debate, discussion, and learning—not sites of censorship where administrators, donors, and politicians squash political discourse they don't approve of," NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.

"These student groups were peacefully speaking out on a critical global conflict, only to have Columbia University ignore their own long-standing, existing rules and abruptly suspend the organizations," she continued. "That's retaliatory, it's targeted, and it flies in the face of the free speech principles that institutes of higher learning should be defending. Students protesting at private colleges still have the right to fair, equal treatment—and we are ready to fight that battle in court."

Lieberman's group threatened a lawsuit in a Thursday letter to Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, senior executive vice president Gerald M. Rosberg, and general counsel Felice B. Rosan.

"The referenced 'unauthorized event' was a peaceful demonstration and temporary art installation advocating for the end of Israel's current military campaign in the Gaza Strip, which at that point had claimed over 10,000 Palestinian lives and by today has claimed over 29,000 Palestinian lives," notes the letter. "The demonstration had been organized by a broad coalition of student groups."

"Had the university followed its existing processes, as it was required to do, the student groups would have been afforded several protections, including an opportunity to appeal the final decision," the letter highlights. "Because it failed to follow its own rules, Columbia University must reverse the suspensions and reinstitute the student groups."

The NYCLU argued that "Columbia University's imposition of a sanction of this magnitude for an alleged procedural violation also independently demands reversal because of its disproportionality and because it contravenes both the public interest and the policies reflected by the university's own mission."

The legal group added that the "public accusation—with no basis in fact—that the student groups engaged in 'threatening rhetoric and intimidation' raises serious concerns that the university's unprecedented actions were improperly motivated by the student groups' political stance in support of Palestinian rights."

According to the Columbia Daily Spectator:

A university spokesperson declined to comment on the prospect of legal action and pointed to the language in the interim policy on safe demonstrations.

"The right of students, faculty, and staff to express their views is the cornerstone of our academic community," the policy reads. "We are committed to free and open debate, and the principle that the right to speak applies equally to everyone, regardless of their viewpoint. Just as every member of our community has this right, they also have a corresponding responsibility not to interfere with the rights of others to speak, study, teach, and learn."

"Columbia must protect all Jewish students and voices, not just those adhering to a specific political belief," Cameron Jones, an organizer with the university's suspended JVP chapter, stressed in a statement Friday. "The university's decision to suspend a Jewish group sets a concerning precedent for safeguarding free speech on college campuses."

"It not only took away our rights as a club, but told us that our university does not support or respect anti-Zionist Jews or their beliefs," Jones added. "This suspension has not and will not hinder our organizing efforts, though—as Jews, we acknowledge the significant privilege we hold regarding this issue and are committed to exerting every effort to maintain pressure on our institution until they enact the concrete changes we need."

An organizer with the Columbia chapter of SJP, Safiya O'Brien, pointed out that the school "likes to showcase itself to the world as a champion of student protest, equality, justice, and free speech—but the university's actions in the lead-up to our suspension, and its targeted punishment of our student groups, showed that it is all a farce."

"As students of conscience, we know injustice when we see it," O'Brien said. "The university's priorities are not with its student body—certainly not with its Palestinian students and the overwhelming number of those that advocate for them."

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