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Campus Divided: an alumna's view on University Pro-Palestine Protests

I was a student at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin just two years ago, where my college experience was similar to what you would see in the movies. People walking with iced coffee to class, attending lectures from revered professors, and cheering loudly at college football games. Now, I live abroad, and through various news outlets, I’ve seen that the landscape I once knew has shifted. On Monday, April 29th, law enforcement officers, many dressed in riot gear, arrested 79 pro-Palestine protesters- utilizing flashbangs and pepper spray to disperse the crowd.

Protestors gathered in front of the UT Tower, an emblematic symbol of the university, at 12:15 pm, according to an Instagram post from @txstudentsfordei. About an hour later, the university’s police department posted on X that a dispersal order had been issued, and protestors should “leave the South Mall area immediately.” Gathered on the main lawn of my alma mater, students chanted “Free Palestine” while linking arms in solidarity. They held signs saying, “Divest from genocide”, and “UT supports war crimes”, whilst state troopers, carrying batons, face shields, and zip ties came to the scene. This demonstration and subsequent arrests follow a similar protest from the previous week, during which 57 individuals faced arrest on charges of criminal trespassing.


These conflicts aren’t confined to the UT Austin campus. The encampments started at Columbia University, inspiring universities across the country to do the same. The arrests at UT coincide with Columbia University in New York City issuing warnings of suspension to students for their participation in protest encampments and refusal to disperse. Protestors are advocating for their universities to divest from the conflict in Gaza, specifically urging them to sell investments in companies they deem complicit in the war. Through these demonstrations, students are asking universities to stop investing in companies engaged in business directly with Israel, in weapons manufacturers providing supplies to Israel, and in companies domiciled in Israel.


At the same time, as protests sweep American college campuses, concerns have arisen regarding the increasing instances of hate speech and antisemitism directed at Jewish students. According to a Jewish advocacy group, the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents have “spiked nationally in the final three months of 2023” since the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. There are reports of Jewish students being intimidated by protesters: for example, one Jewish student at Columbia University reported that she had been called a "murderer" and was told to "go back to Poland". However, there have also been reports of Jewish students joining the peaceful protest. In the UK, where more students are starting to set up camps to protest against the Gaza war, the Union of Jewish Students has warned that the UK occupations are creating a “hostile and toxic atmosphere”, yet there are also Jewish staff and students taking part in the protest camps. Moreover, pro-Palestine protest organisers have reported being subjected to Islamophobic and racist remarks by those counter-demonstrating.

In Texas and nationwide, demonstrations in support of Palestine have tested the commitment to the First Amendment, the right to free speech, by state and university leaders. The University of Texas released a statement on the day of making close to 80 arrests, saying the university “strongly supports the free speech and assembly rights of our community. Similarly, New York University, amidst its own series of arrests, emphasised the need to “continue to support individuals’ right to freedom of expression and…the safety of our students and maintaining an equitable learning environment remain paramount.”


Four years ago, the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, signed a bill, enshrining free speech protections on college campuses. In a 2019 video, he says, “Some colleges are banning free speech on college campuses. Well, no more. I’m about to sign a law that protects free speech on college campuses in Texas. Shouldn’t have to do it… First Amendment guarantees it.” When the demonstrations happened recently, Abbott said student protestors “belong in jail” and should “be expelled” in a post on social media platform, X. Additionally, in October of this year, UT Austin held an annual weeklong celebration of free speech. University President Jay Hartzell said, “The freedom to speak, think, and express is at the very heart of any world-class academic institution.”


However, stances have shifted from protecting free speech towards condemning student protestors. The university and state leaders have had a heavy-handed response towards demonstrations, with Abbott deploying the Department of Public Safety to crack down on campus protests and Hartzell telling the campus community he had “credible indications'' that demonstrators would try and use the “apparatus of free speech and expression to severely disrupt campus”.


I asked students how they felt about these protests, the divisiveness present on campus, and the response that university administration had to them.


A current student of the University of Texas, who requested to remain anonymous, said, “[Our President’s] response shows a clear reason why he cannot continue to be the president of UT: not only has he shown a clear political stance, but he has attempted to silence those with thoughts different from his.”


A student at New York University, who also requested to remain anonymous, said “The response to the protests have been a reminder that in America, free speech is contingent on upholding the status quo…as soon as you start questioning the entire system, you are repressed, often violently.” She said, “anyone who has been to the protests knows not a single person who has come close to being violent or aggressive. In fact, it is the police who have endangered students…the irony is incredibly frustrating.”


UT students have been dealing with the fallout and violent response to their protests whilst dealing with their end-of-year school commitments and final exams. Reportedly, students were seen with their study notes whilst occupying the university’s main lawn, or with their laptops putting final touches on their assignments. The University of Texas student I spoke to said the response to the protests “completely changed the atmosphere for finals”, and “having students and peers [she] knew being arrested was extremely difficult to watch.” In the midst of exams, she mentioned, there were “texts from police on safety alerts” and “speakers in the dining hall stating there would be action against people who protested.”


 My recollection of the university was one of fostering free-thinking, with the university’s motto, “What starts here changes the world” serving as a compelling reason to even attend UT Austin. However, witnessing deployed police force, and considering how student voices have been stifled over these past 2 weeks, has severely altered my perception of my former campus.

The university’s actions contradict their professed values, leaving students, alums, and faculty pondering: Whose free speech is truly protected?


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