US activists begin to grapple with repercussions of their anti-Israel college protests

Some students and faculty members who took part in events are facing disciplinary action and other penalties

People rally on the campus of Columbia University which is occupied by pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters in New York on April 22, 2024. (Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)
People rally on the campus of Columbia University which is occupied by pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters in New York on April 22, 2024. (Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

VIRGINIA — Sam Law, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of roughly 80 people arrested and charged with criminal trespassing for protesting the war in Gaza on his campus at the end of April.

Someone had apparently read a dispersal order over a loudspeaker at that April 29 protest, Law said, citing his arrest affidavit, but he doesn’t remember hearing one.

“I was on my own campus exercising my right to speak,” he said.

US universities have been rocked by waves of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests, with police and protesters clashing at times and questions raised over forceful methods used to disperse the rallies and encampments.

On Law’s campus, officers clad in riot gear and mounted on horseback swept away demonstrations in late April, arresting dozens of people days before the graduate student was himself arrested.

Now many students fear they will be penalized academically or even professionally as they prepare to enter the workforce or return to classes in the coming months.

People chant against the Israel-Hamas war during a protest set up in a plaza at the University of Texas at Dallas, in Richardson, Texas, May 1, 2024. (LM Otero/AP)

Law and those arrested with him had their criminal trespass charges dropped but now they face the prospect of disciplinary action from the university itself.

In recent weeks, they have received messages from college authorities asking them why they didn’t disperse, if they agreed their conduct on the day was disruptive, and what they would tell a fellow student “who had their lives or education negatively impacted by your conduct,” according to emailed questions seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Some now face the prospect of disciplinary action like probation or suspension, according to local media.

“Lots of people are deeply worried,” Law said.

Dylan Saba, staff attorney with Palestine Legal, said the advocacy group responded to more than 1,000 requests for help between October 7 — when Hamas-led terrorists stormed into Israel, murdering around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 251 hostages — and the end of last year.

“Key among them are doxxing in relation to pro-Palestine advocacy and expression, disciplinary actions and charges from universities, and then also issues of employment discrimination,” he said.

A person is detained by police as pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students protest on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, on April 24, 2024. (Suzanne CORDEIRO / AFP)

Law found himself a target of doxxing — the malicious posting of personal information — after his image ended up online.

“I was sort of soft-doxxed where a lot of random right-wing Twitter accounts were just like, ‘This is Sam Law. He’s a graduate student at University of Texas. Do you support this pro-Hamas graduate student studying in your department? We need answers.’ That kind of thing,” he said.

At the same time, many Jewish students and faculty members have been dealing with antisemitic abuse and discrimination as Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza has continued.

In response to the Hamas-led attack, Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 38,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health authorities. The toll cannot be verified, has come under question and does not differentiate between civilians and fighters. Israel says it has killed some 15,000 terror operatives.

“There are students who have told us that they are planning to transfer or who have transferred out of their universities because of antisemitism,” said Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the nonprofit Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a Jewish rights advocacy group that has filed a number of civil rights complaints against universities since October 7.

Stanford students camp out in front of the university’s White Plaza to push the school to adopt more aggressive stances against Israel, Stanford, California, November 7, 2023. (Tayfun Cokun/Anadolu via Getty Images/ via JTA)

“That’s something we’ve heard from time to time over the years, but we’re hearing more of it — by far — lately,” he said. “Jewish students also have been physically assaulted, they’ve been threatened. They’ve been verbally assaulted.”

‘Individualized targeting’

The nationwide campus protests, spurred in part by encampments that began in April at Columbia University and elsewhere, have led to more than 3,000 arrests in recent months.

Even as classes wound down and many students headed home for the summer, the protests continued. More than a dozen students were arrested in June at Stanford University after they occupied the president’s office.

Saba said the situation on campuses could be a watershed moment for the pro-Palestinian movement.

“The disciplinary actions are happening on such a wide scale and in such a public fashion that I do think that a lot of people recognize this as a major political, cultural moment,” he said.

The University of Texas at Austin confirmed it had issued discipline notices to students for rules violations but a spokesperson said it does not administer “professional or academic consequences” for protesting.

People gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia University on November 20, 2023, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images via AFP)

“The actions and stated intentions of those participating (on April 24 and 29) stand in stark contrast to no fewer than 13 previous pro-Palestinian free speech events on our campus since October, which took place largely without incident,” the university said in a statement.

“The University of Texas at Austin will continue to support the Constitutional rights to free speech of all individuals on our campus and will also enforce our rules while providing due process and holding students, faculty, staff and visitors accountable.”

Corey Saylor, research and advocacy director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the most recent iteration of pushback on the protests has been different from previous waves.

“It has standouts to it that we haven’t seen before. One of them is the very explicit doxxing and targeting of students and very individualized, and the same is with employees,” he said.

“And with employees, what we’ve seen is people will go to a pro-Palestine rally and then get called into HR (human resources) two days later.”

Marcus from the Brandeis Center acknowledged that participants in pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rallies and events were seeing professional consequences.

Demonstrators from Columbia University’s pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel encampment unfurl a banner as they barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall, a campus building which has been occupied in past student movements, and name it after a Palestinian child allegedly killed in Gaza, April 30, 2024 in New York City. (Alex Kent/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

“But it’s also true that some of their actions have been unlawful and also violent,” he said.

“It’s not unusual for human resources departments to raise a red flag about candidates who have a history of hate or bias activity, especially if that history has been adjudicated by a court or resulted in conduct violations assessed by a university judicial body,” he said.

For Law’s part, he said his university’s handling of the situation could also make some students think twice about participating in on-campus protests in the future, though he predicted the movement could continue.

“I never really felt that what I did was wrong. I felt that I was standing up and expressing myself in the midst of genocide in a way that felt effective — and I think it was effective,” he said.

“We got a lot of attention in Austin — it really sort of sparked something that’s, I think, going to continue.”

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