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ACLU Calls on University Presidents to Protect Protests, Free Speech in Open Letter

Pro-Palestine protesters stage a demonstration outside the office of the University president in Massachusetts Hall. The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the presidents of private and public universities to urge stronger protections for free speech and academic freedom.
Pro-Palestine protesters stage a demonstration outside the office of the University president in Massachusetts Hall. The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the presidents of private and public universities to urge stronger protections for free speech and academic freedom. By Selorna A. Ackuayi
By S. Mac Healey and Saketh Sundar, Crimson Staff Writers

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to presidents of public and private universities on Friday urging stronger protections on free speech and academic freedom amid a nationwide surge of pro-Palestine demonstrations, including the student occupation of Harvard Yard.

The ACLU’s letter — penned by Executive Director Anthony D. Romero and National Legal Director David Cole — lays out “five basic guardrails to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom are protected on campus.”

The letter was sent Friday in response to the widespread arrests of protesters at Columbia University, Yale University, and New York University, among others. At the time of the letter’s release, the Harvard Yard encampment was in its third day.

Harvard spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment and did not confirm whether interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 received the letter.

The letter’s guidelines include prohibiting discrimination against specific viewpoints on the war in Gaza, ensuring protection of students against harassment and violence, and cautioning against the use of armed police, which they called “a measure of last resort.”

The letter also urges universities to “resist the pressures placed on them by politicians seeking to exploit campus tensions.”

Though the letter condoned university policies that determine where and when protests can be conducted, it said these policies must be “content-neutral” and “leave ample room for students to express themselves.”

“If a university has routinely tolerated violations of its rules, and suddenly enforces them harshly in a specific context, singling out particular views for punishment, the fact that the policy is formally neutral on its face does not make viewpoint-based enforcement permissible,” the authors added.

Harvard first broke its silence on the Yard encampment on Thursday when Dean of Students Thomas Dunne sent an email to undergraduates warning of disciplinary action. On Saturday, Dunne again warned of “disciplinary consequences” and “increased sanctions” for those who continued to participate in the pro-Palestine demonstration.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Massachusetts sent a letter to Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel that accused the University of failing to enforce its policies in a content-neutral manner.

The ACLUM said the University bent to external political pressure and applied unequally stringent protest guidelines to the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which the College suspended last Monday.

The Friday ACLU letter specifically addresses a phrase used by pro-Palestinian activists — “from the river to the sea” — which former Harvard President Claudine Gay condemned last November.

“Even if many listeners find these messages deeply offensive,” Cole and Romero wrote, it “cannot be prohibited or punished.”

“Speech that is not targeted at an individual or individuals because of their ethnicity or national origin but merely expresses impassioned views about Israel or Palestine is not discrimination and should be protected,” the authors wrote in an apparent reference to criticisms over pro-Palestinian chants.

“One can criticize Israel’s actions, even in vituperative terms, without being antisemitic,” they wrote. “And by the same token, one can support Israel’s actions in Gaza and condemn Hamas without being anti-Muslim.”

The letter further asserted that “college administrators should involve police only as a last resort, after all other efforts have been exhausted.”

In an interview with The Crimson last Tuesday, Garber said while he would not rule out police response to the protest, it would require a “very, very high bar.” Harvard University Police Department Chief Victor A. Clay defended the rights of the protesters in the encampment during a Friday interview with The Crimson.

In the letter, the ACLU also cites the 1972 Supreme Court case Healy v. James, in which the court ruled that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”

—Staff writer S. Mac Healey can be reached at mac.healey@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @MacHealey.

—Staff writer Saketh Sundar can be reached at saketh.sundar@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @saketh_sundar.

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