Some Universities Are Holding Back Pro-Palestine Student Protestors’ Diplomas

Several universities across the country are withholding, or threatening to withhold, the diplomas of seniors who engaged in pro-Palestine demonstrations on their campuses amid a national student mobilization in recent months.

After Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel on Oct. 7, the Israeli military launched a massive offensive in Gaza, which has so far has killed more than 35,000 and sparked a famine in the region. In response, students formed encampments and held demonstrations to demand that their colleges publicly denounce Israel’s attacks on Gaza as a genocide, increase transparency about their Israeli ties and divest from companies in business with Israel.

Many pro-Palestine demonstrations have been peaceful. But hundreds of students at universities across the country have been arrested for their involvement, and some are facing hearings for alleged disciplinary violations.

Now, multiple colleges are saying that diplomas will be held until these investigations are completed.

On Friday, administrators at the University of California, Los Angeles threatened to discipline and withhold the diplomas of at least 55 students who were involved in pro-Palestine demonstrations.

In letters sent on Friday, administrators accused the students of violating the student code of conduct, alleging that they failed to respond to police’s orders to disperse at the May 2 encampment and engaged in “disorderly behavior,” “disturbing the peace” and “failure to comply,” according to the Guardian and UCLA’s student newspaper, The Daily Bruin.

The letters say students must attend hearings to discuss the their protest involvement and will not be allowed to receive their degrees until they’ve done so, the Guardian reported. Students who don’t schedule their meeting or who miss it will not be able to register for classes next semester or, if they’re seniors, graduate.

UCLA did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request to comment on the pro-Palestine student hearings.

Similar actions against students involved in pro-Palestine demonstrations are happening at Ivy League schools like Princeton University.

Princeton has held the degrees of at least two seniors who were involved in a pro-Palestine walkout held during an annual event last week, according to the college’s student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian.

At the annual alumni address on May 25, about 25 students raised their hands, which were covered in red paint, dropped two banners and placed speakers under seats at the front of the auditorium, according to the Daily Princetonian. The demonstration lasted for six minutes, after which the group staged a walkout and continued protesting outside of the auditorium.

“The University continues to enforce viewpoint-neutral time, place, and manner rules during end-of-year events. A wide range of protest activity is permitted, including walking out of an event. Significantly disrupting University operations and events is not permitted,” Jennifer Morrill, director of media relations at Princeton University, told HuffPost.

In a post on social media on May 27, the student group Princeton Israeli Apartheid Divest claimed that the students “were not given any disciplinary warnings” throughout the protest.

One of the seniors whose degree is being held told HuffPost that he and the other student had walked out of the event after seeing the protest happen, but did not participate in the demonstration itself. (The student requested anonymity out of fear of retribution from the university.)

“We left because we were uncomfortable and thought they cut the event short given the protest. But even if we were protesting, given the University spokesperson’s comment, we did nothing wrong,” he said, noting how students in 2015 led a walkout during the president’s speech and faced no investigations or disciplinary action.

“Even at commencement, people turned their back on him and walked out — also no punishment. To my knowledge, this is the first time that anyone is facing any punishment for walking out of a University event of any kind.”

The student said he believes that he and the other senior were targeted by the school because of their previous efforts to de-escalate tensions on campus and hold the school accountable, especially amid the pro-Palestine demonstrations.

The two students were still allowed to attend the commencement ceremony on Tuesday, but were told that they couldn’t pick up their diplomas due an ongoing disciplinary investigation.

“It is standard University practice that when seniors are involved in alleged disciplinary violations soon before Commencement, their degrees are held pending the conclusion of a disciplinary investigation. Temporarily holding a degree while an investigation is pending is not a disciplinary sanction,” Morrill said.

Youssef Hasweh, a senior at the University of Chicago, received an email from the associate dean of students on May 24 saying that he was identified as someone who’d potentially been involved in “disruptive conduct” at the encampment earlier this month.

Three other students also received the email. None of the four have been given any specifics about their alleged misconduct, according to Chicago Sun Times.

In an email, which was viewed by HuffPost, the dean told the students that they would be allowed to walk at the commencement ceremony on Saturday, but that their degrees would not be conferred until the matter is resolved through disciplinary hearings. The disciplinary process has no set timeline.

UChicago’s director of public affairs, Gerald McSwiggan, did not respond to specific questions about the four students whose diplomas are being withheld. McSwiggan directed HuffPost to a May 26 statement from the school outlining its disciplinary process.

Hasweh told HuffPost that he is unsure why the school is sanctioning him and the three other targeted students, when thousands participated in the school’s encampment. He noted that he and the three other students had been previously arrested during a pro-Palestine sit-in in the fall and were also set to face a disciplinary hearing for that.

On the same day Hasweh and the others received the email from the dean about the second hearing, he said, they were told that their first hearing was concluded and the school would give them an official warning as a result.

“UChicago is essentially on a two-strike system,” Hasweh said. “So with the warning from the sit-in, they’re going to hit us really hard with the encampment.”

Several U.S. schools, including the ones that are holding student protesters diplomas, have statements on their websites expressing that free speech and expression is valued on their campuses, so long as it isn’t disruptive and doesn’t violate school policies.

Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber took a moment during the alumni event last week to remind students of the college’s policy, after one protestor yelled, “We are complicit in genocide,” during his speech.

“We do believe in free speech, but we don’t believe in free speech that interrupts, so we’re gonna put a stop to this,” Eisgruber said as the protester continued shouting, the Daily Princetonian reported.

But the student HuffPost spoke to said he disagrees with the way the college is handling the situation and said it didn’t warrant disciplinary action.

“The University absolutely touts free speech— it’s very well-documented. However, I’m not too sure that their handling of this situation reflects their value of that,” he said.

Quinn O’Connor, an alum of UCLA who graduated in 2022, said that she feels “incredibly disappointed” by the college’s threat to hold the degrees of some students who participated in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, especially considering how much it touts its tolerance of free speech as a public university.

In 2022, O’Connor and several other students held a 16-day sit-in at the chancellor’s building to protest the college’s return to in-person learning and demand hybrid learning options, which disabled and immunocompromised students had benefited from.

O’Connor said that they felt that their rights to free speech had been respected to an extent, noting that the students who participated in the 2022 sit-in were primarily people of color and faced regular threats of being forced out of the building from administration and the police.

But they believe the college’s response to the pro-Palestine demonstrations has been different.

“I participated in an occupation of a building on that same campus no more than two years ago, where we were never forcibly removed,” O’Connor told HuffPost.

UCLA administrators had initially tolerated the largely peaceful pro-Palestine encampment on campus. But after counter-protestors attacked the camp overnight, college officials issued a statement warning students to disband.

“UCLA supports peaceful protest, but not activism that harms our ability to carry out our academic mission and makes people in our community feel bullied, threatened and afraid,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement on April 30.

Police raided and destroyed the encampment on May 2. More than 200 students and faculty were arrested, and UC President Michael Drake said that 15 people were injured, though protestors say the number was actually higher.

O’Connor argued that the 2022 sit-in was “more disruptive” than UCLA’s pro-Palestine demonstrations were. The pro-Palestine encampment stretched primarily across a lawn, while in 2022, O’Connor’s group had actively blocked administrators’ office doors, including Block’s office.

The encampment on UChicago’s campus was established April 29 and went on for days, even after the university warned students to leave or face removal. One group of protestors temporarily took over a building on campus. On May 7, police disbanded the encampment, according to the Associated Press.

“Safety concerns have mounted over the last few days, and the risks were increasing too rapidly for the status quo to hold,” UChicago president Paul Alivisatos said in a statement earlier this month.

But more than a dozen members of Chicago’s City Council believe that the college’s decision to withhold degrees from students who participated is a repression of free speech that contradicts the university’s own policy, and they penned a letter on Friday to push back on its actions.

The council members worried that “this repression forms part of a pattern of universities targeting students for making their voices heard,” according to the Chicago Sun Times.

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