Columbia, Free Speech and the Coddling of the American Right

​​​​As a journalist, you usually go to the front line to find the news. But sometimes the front line finds you. This happened to me not once but twice on Thursday, as an epic battle over freedom of expression on college campuses unfolded from one end of Manhattan to another.

The first was when I happened to be on the campus of Columbia University, speaking at a class. While leaving the classroom,I came upon a tent camp that had sprung up on one of the campus’s lush lawns. It was, as college protests often are, an earnest but peaceful affair. A few dozen tents had been pitched, and students hung a sign reading “GAZA SOLIDARITY ENCAMPMENT.” Their tactics were a mild echo of those of an earlier generation of students, who effectively shut down the campus in April 1985 to demand that Columbia divest from South Africa — protests that were in turn an echo of the 1968 student takeover of the university amid the broad cultural rebellion against the Vietnam War.

On Thursday morning the students marched in a circle, their chants demanding that Columbia divest from Israel in protest of the ongoing slaughter in Gaza, in which around 34,000 people — more than 1 percent of Gaza’s population— have died, most of them women and children. The protesters were taking up a good bit of space and making a fair bit of noise. They were, according to the university, trespassing on the grounds of the school they pay dearly to attend. But they didn’t seem to be targeting, much less harming, any of their fellow students. The campus was closed to outsiders; the protest seemed unlikely to escalate. I took in the scene, then hopped on the subway to get back to my office.

I was stunned to learn, less than an hour later, that Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik, had asked the New York Police Department to clear the camp, which had been established less than 48 hours earlier. What followed was the largest arrest of students at Columbia since 1968.

I knew that I would run into those students again: I live a block away from the headquarters of the N.Y.P.D., where protesters are often booked and processed. Since Oct. 7 there have been regular demonstrations on my block as pro-Palestinian activistsawait the release of their friends. When I got home from the office, a huge crowd had already gathered.

Most of the students I tried to talk to did not want to be interviewed. Some had harsh criticisms of mainstream media coverage of the war in Gaza. Others were afraid that being associated with the protest movement could harm their future career prospects. (These are Ivy League students, after all.) But eventually, many told me of their determination to keep protesting for a cause they feel is the defining moral challenge of their lives.

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