NYCLU threatens to sue Columbia University over suspension of pro-Palestinian groups

New York, New York - The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is threatening to take legal action if Columbia University does not reinstate student groups it suspended over their Palestinian rights advocacy.

Columbia University students, faculty, and staff wave Palestinian flags during an on-campus protest in solidarity with Gazans under siege.
Columbia University students, faculty, and staff wave Palestinian flags during an on-campus protest in solidarity with Gazans under siege.  © SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

NYCLU sent a letter to Columbia administrators, dated February 22, demanding the university reinstate chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) after they were suspended without due process. Otherwise, NYCLU is prepared to sue.

"Universities should be havens for robust debate, discussion, and learning – not sites of censorship where administrators, donors, and politicians squash political discourse they don't approve of," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a press release announcing the move.

"These student groups were peacefully speaking out on a critical global conflict, only to have Columbia University ignore their own longstanding, existing rules and abruptly suspend the organizations," Lieberman continued. "That's retaliatory, it's targeted, and it flies in the face of the free speech principles that institutes of higher learning should be defending."

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Safiya O'Brien, an organizer with Columbia’s chapter of SJP, said, "Columbia University likes to showcase itself to the world as a champion of student protest, equality, justice, and free speech – but the university’s actions in the lead up to our suspension, and its targeted punishment of our student groups, showed that it is all a farce."

"As students of conscience, we know injustice when we see it. The university’s priorities are not with its student body – certainly not with its Palestinian students and the overwhelming number of those that advocate for them."

"Columbia must protect all Jewish students and voices, not just those adhering to a specific political belief," agreed Cameron Jones, an organizer with Columbia’s chapter of JVP. "The university's decision to suspend a Jewish group sets a concerning precedent for safeguarding free speech on college campuses."

Columbia University leadership suspends pro-Palestine student groups

Pro-Palestinian protesters participate in an "All out for Palestine" rally at Columbia University in New York.
Pro-Palestinian protesters participate in an "All out for Palestine" rally at Columbia University in New York.  © Yuki IWAMURA / AFP

Columbia leadership bypassed normal procedures to unilaterally suspend its chapters of SJP and JVP on November 10, 2023, following an "unauthorized" protest against Israel's ongoing assault on Gaza.

"The referenced 'unauthorized event' was a peaceful demonstration and temporary art installation advocating for the end of Israel's current military campaign in the Gaza Strip, which at that point had claimed over 10,000 Palestinian lives and by today has claimed over 29,000 Palestinian lives," NYCLU's letter explains. "The demonstration had been organized by a broad coalition of student groups."

"Had the university followed its existing processes, as it was required to do, the student groups would have been afforded several protections, including an opportunity to appeal the final decision," the letter states.

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"Because it failed to follow its own rules, Columbia University must reverse the suspensions and reinstitute the student groups."

NYCLU has given Columbia administrators a deadline of March 1, 2024, to respond before the organization pursues legal action.

Cover photo: SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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