American university administrators continue to grapple with the conflict between student and faculty political activism and critics who allege intimidation, bullying and antisemitism. Unfortunately, the critics almost always win, and this report in The Forward acknowledges.

Colleges rewrite free speech policies and limit protests as spring semester unfolds

Some new policies would prohibit the posting of signs such as the ‘kidnapped’ flyers showing hostages held by Hamas.

With the spring semester underway, colleges around the U.S. are rewriting free speech policies and reiterating limits on protests. The new rules come in response to conflicts and allegations of bias that rocked campus life last fall in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

Some of the new rules regulate signage in such a way as to prohibit posters with pictures of hostages held by Hamas. New rules at American University in Washington, D.C., for example, prohibit posting flyers on university property unless those flyers provide details about events organized by student clubs or university-affiliated organizations.

Under that policy, “kidnapped” flyers could only be posted if “a university organization hosted an event with a speaker about the hostages,” AU spokesperson Matthew Bennett said. The poster would also have to include information about the sponsoring group and details on attending the event.

Those “kidnapped” flyers sparked numerous confrontations between supporters of Israel who put them up and pro-Palestinian individuals who often tore them down. In some cases, people removing the posters were videotaped and their identities were disclosed on social media by pro-Israel groups.

Demonstrations, vandalism and threats have disrupted many colleges in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s war in Gaza. Jewish students have filed lawsuits alleging antisemitism at Rutgers, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and other schools. Some Jewish students have transferred out of schools like Occidental College where they said they felt unsafe.

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating numerous reports of antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in institutions that receive federal funding.

“If free speech impedes the ability of another individual’s ability to learn, it’s a violation of that right to equal access,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “At what point does one person’s free speech violate another student’s right or faculty member’s right to free thought, free speech, or academic freedom?”

AU’s new guidelines were issued a week after a group of Jewish students accused the school of failing to protect them from antisemitic harassment and vandalism. The new policies, designed to “counter antisemitism and promote civil discourse,” also prohibit protests inside university buildings and require student clubs, events and posters to “promote inclusivity” and “be welcoming to all students.”

Lehigh, Cornell and others

Lehigh University in Pennsylvania also issued a revised policy that “clarifies” what can be posted on campus property, specifying that any flyer, sign, light projection or chalked communication on university property must pertain to activities, opportunities or services offered by university departments or other members of the university community.

Cornell University issued a new interim policy on “expressive activity” requiring official registration for events with more than 50 people and limiting megaphone use to certain spots on campus and to one hour a day. “Infringement upon the rights of others to speak and to be heard, or interference with the peaceful and lawful use and enjoyment of university premises, facilities, and programs, is never acceptable,” the university said.

Work on the Cornell policy began in spring 2023, but its implementation follows a semester of upheaval at Cornell that included the arrest of a student who made death threats against Jews. Cornell is inviting input from faculty, staff and students before the rules are finalized.

Many schools, including the City University of New York and Northwestern, have launched commissions to investigate and combat antisemitism. Stanford held a symposium on the topic last week.


But there’s also been pushback. Critics say the new policies threaten American universities’ mission of fostering open debate and learning. Pro-Palestinian students on Saturday demonstrated in opposition to AU’s new guidelines, calling them “drastic measures limiting the rights of students for political expression.”

The University of California’s governing board was supposed to vote this week on a controversial measure to curtail political expression on official channels like university websites. But the UC Board of Regents delayed the vote until March after some students and faculty blasted the proposal as an effort to quell criticism of Israel and an affront to principles of free speech and academic freedom.

UC Regent Jay Sures was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying, “The last thing that I or any of my fellow regents want to do is quash free speech or academic freedom.” But Sures also said he thinks political sentiments that don’t reflect university views should be marked as opinion and shouldn’t appear on department home pages.

Another factor is that, while private universities have more leeway to ignore First Amendment rights, public city and state universities like the California system are bound by federal law to permit free speech. But ultimately it’s a balancing act, in that any school that receives federal funding must also comply with Title VI rules against bias.

The aftermath of the congressional hearings

Another impetus for the change in policies is the congressional hearing where two Ivy League presidents said calling for Jewish genocide might be permitted under their schools’ codes of conduct, depending on the context. Both those presidents, from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, have since resigned.

Their testimony laid bare what many critics characterized as accepting antisemitism on campuses where other forms of bias, like racism or homophobia, would never be tolerated.

“You can’t ban speech by some but not others,”  said Pasquerella, the American Association of Colleges and Universities head. That apparent double standard helped amplify the “urgent call for action to clarify the details in free speech and code of conduct policies” that’s now playing out.

Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, along with Harvard’s deans, issued a statement Jan. 19 offering “guidance on protest and dissent” that included a prohibition on demonstrations in places where they would “interfere with the normal activities of the university,” such as classrooms, dorms and dining halls.

Harvard’s guidance also prohibits disrupting lectures or speeches or “damaging, defacing, or removing a properly posted sign.” The guidance notes, however, that “free speech is of fundamental importance” to Harvard’s mission as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, and protests and related activities must be permitted in venues such as courtyards and quads.

Meanwhile, MIT president Sally Kornbluth, who also testified at the congressional hearings, sent a letter Jan. 3 announcing a new committee to figure out how to balance freedom of expression with “the need to guard against harassment, bullying, intimidation and discrimination.”

Many of the new guidelines state that violators could face disciplinary hearings in keeping with campus codes of conduct.

Barnard kerfuffle epitomizes the challenge

Eventually, Pasquerella thinks, the evolution of new policies will help iron out the conflict between academic freedom and free speech on the one hand, and the need to ensure students’ right to education, free from bias and harassment, on the other.

But for now, those conflicts persist. Last semester, for example, Barnard administrators removed a pro-Palestinian statement from the department of women’s, gender and sexuality studies. The department said the administration had called the statement “impermissible political speech.”

The college then issued revised rules giving the administration control over anything posted on school websites, restricting faculty political activities and instituting a 28-day approval process for events.

The New York Times reported that faculty members were also asked to remove pro-Palestinian signs from office doors. The women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program has since created its own website outside of Barnard’s purview, where pro-Palestinian statements are now posted.

In December, the New York Civil Liberties Union warned Barnard College President Laura Rosenbury that the new rules are “incompatible with a sound understanding of academic freedom.” If campuses “can stifle political discourse they don’t approve of,” the NYCLU said, “then schools are no longer a haven for debate, discussion, and learning.”