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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
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Staff Editorial: Restricting student speech on AU’s campus suppresses its ‘changemakers’

The University’s indoor protest ban will not prevent antisemitism or other forms of hate

The Eagle’s editorial board is comprised of its staff but does not represent every individual staffer’s views. Rather, it provides an insight into how The Eagle, as an editorially-independent institution, responds to issues on campus. 

See a photo gallery of indoor protests at AU over the years, including two from the Fall 2023 semester.

On Jan. 25, American University announced a ban on indoor protests, mandated student organizations welcome all students and required posters to promote inclusivity. This ban is harmful, contradictory and will do little to solve the problems students face on campus.

AU’s reputation is tied to students’ ability to freely express and engage with issues on campus. Historically, students have led sit-ins, organized indoor and outdoor protests and circulated petitions. This is the culture of our campus and removing a key form of student expression fundamentally changes that. 

The University announced these new policies following a complaint from the group Jewish On Campus and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, asks the OCR to investigate the University under violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The complaint specifically alleges that “anti-Israel protests” on AU’s campus have “interfered with [Jewish and Israeli] students’ ability to attend classes or move about the campus freely.” 

While the announcement of these new policies was not an explicit reaction to this complaint, outside pressure clearly impacted this decision, as it is entirely inconsistent with a University that prides itself on political activism. 

After years of repeated acts of antisemitic vandalism followed by years of half-hearted statement responses from the University administration, AU is enacting a reactionary policy that will do nothing to curb antisemitism or other forms of hate on campus. 

Instead, these policy updates will only serve to limit all students’ expression. Furthermore, the vagueness of the inclusivity requirements for clubs and postering offer more questions than solutions for student groups. 

Multiple student groups have recently engaged in indoor protests in order to bring as much attention to their cause as possible, including AU Students for Justice in Palestine and AU Sunrise Movement. Both groups utilized the School of International Service building to drop banners from indoor balconies on the second and third floors. 

Such protests do cause heightened disruption of classes and the general flow of movement, but that is the point. Protests do not lead to change by being neatly and separately demonstrated away from public view. Furthermore, the relative infrequency of indoor protests means that regular student activity is rarely disrupted. 

The University’s announcement tied the ban on indoor protests with fighting antisemitism. The notion that indoor protests are a tool to further antisemitism against Jewish students harmfully equates indoor protests with hate. It creates an unfair policy in the name of protecting Jewish students without actually offering them any support, and does so at the detriment of many clubs on campus.

The other policies in the University’s announcement address student organization and poster inclusivity. These new policies are vague and seemingly pointless. Membership requirements for student clubs must be relevant to the organization’s purpose and posters must be related to the purpose of the event being advertised. The extent to how this will help curb on-campus hate is unclear besides the message of “inclusivity.”

It also creates concerns for affinity groups, which are designed to offer a safe space to students of particular identities. They are inclusive, but by whose standards? Does this rule threaten them and their ability to provide safe spaces to their members?

It is no doubt difficult to address hate on our campus. Whether it’s a threat to a Palestinian professor or antisemitic symbols graffitied in freshman dorms, most of these acts of hate are anonymous. However, attempting to address these problems by banning indoor protests and mandating club inclusivity misses the point entirely. 

AU’s plan update to the AUx2 curriculum in partnership with the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab may be the closest inroad to addressing the broken response around antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate on campus. It remains to be seen how effective this curriculum change will be, but it alone will not effectively combat these anonymous acts of hate on our campus. 

As a private university, AU is not required to provide students with unabridged free expression. However, for a school that advertises on its students’ change-making ability, the curtailing of student expression through protest bans significantly alters American University’s reputation as a politically-free and active campus. Additionally, it does nothing to serve its students. 

This indoor protest ban is happening in a time of free speech restrictions across academic institutions all over the country. Universities are banning speech instead of making real efforts to address animosity between students. Our culture around addressing hate is broken and banning indoor protest doesn’t fix that — it just buries it.

This piece was written by Jelinda Montes and edited by Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Romy Hermans and Sydney Kornmeyer. 

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