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Student protests threaten to overshadow commencements

Student protests threaten to overshadow commencements

Pro-Palestinian student activists have one last opportunity to make a big impact before campuses are barren for the summer: commencement.  

Tens of thousands of families and friends will flock to campuses across the country starting this weekend to see their loved ones celebrate the conclusion of the degree even as the schools crack down harder on the demonstrations, with more than 2,000 people arrested so far.  

Colleges will be keeping a close watch — and will themselves be under a watchful eye for how they handle disruptions during the celebratory season. 

“I do expect to see [disruptions],” said William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University and founder of EqualProtect.org. “I think that the threat of disruption of commencement has been used to extract concessions from schools” in negotiations with protesters.  

Multiple schools have reached deals with their protesters to get encampments taken down peacefully, including Thursday at Rutgers University, where administrators agreed to a bevy of demands including amnesty from punishment for activists.  

“I think that just demonstrates the power of our student movement, that we’re mobilizing basically the entire student population at each of these schools so that the administrations, which have been deaf to us for so long, not listening to our demands, are now accepting them at face value and making deals that the organizers, the Palestinian organizers themselves, deem appropriate and are accepting these deals," Batya Kline, a student organizer at Wesleyan University, previously told The Hill.

Northwestern University and Brown University also struck deals, getting commitments from the activists that no disruptions would happen at commencement. 

Far more schools have opted for police force to get rid of their encampments, and even at those that did reach agreements, not all protesters were happy with the situation. 

Jacobson said neither route will fully prevent activists from making their presence known at graduation ceremonies.

“I do believe there will be disruptions, whether they're organized officially by these groups or not. That is a supreme pressure point on the schools that the schools, I think, are very sensitive to,” he said.  

“I think what you will see is very similar to what you see when controversial speakers appear on campus,” Jacobson added, saying that instead of a large gathering trying to take over the proceedings, he could see sequential efforts such as “one person will stand up and scream, and that person is taken away. Twenty seconds later, a second person stands up and screams, and that goes on and on and on.” 

Universities are under the watchful eye of Republicans and other critics who say they have failed to rein in antisemitism on campus.  

“These antisemitic, anti-American radicals will seize on any opportunity to hijack the spotlight to harass and intimidate Jewish and pro-Israel students, so we expect to see disruptions at public functions, including graduations,” said Liora Rez, founder and executive director of StopAntisemitism. 

“We don't know what measures universities are taking to prevent graduation disruptions. For schools that showed a weak response to the pro-terror demonstrations on their campuses, like Columbia and UCLA, we expect their actions will not be adequate. For those who have so far shown leadership and good judgement, hopefully they will exercise the same with their graduation policies,” she added.  

The University of Southern California (USC) has canceled its main commencement ceremony, alleging safety concerns after first canceling the speech of its pro-Palestinian valedictorian. The school has provided no details about why it says it could not provide a safe environment for the commencement. 

The first major commencements up this weekend include the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. Michigan is also among the schools that has been called to participate in a House hearing later this month regarding antisemitism on campus.

Neither Michigan nor Ohio State currently has Gaza encampments set up.

“Instead of cancelling graduation ceremonies out of fear of antisemitic disruptions, institutional leaders should grow a backbone and fight back against antisemitism on their campuses with decisive action and moral clarity,” said House Education Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.).

While some say the schools need to set out clear rules for disruptions, others take it a step further.  

“We recommend a zero-tolerance policy for abusive and discriminatory speeches such as we witnessed at the CUNY Law graduation in 2023. Pre-approve speeches and cut the mic if there’s any deviation,” Rez said.  

In 2023, the commencement speaker for the City University of New York (CUNY) law school criticized the New York Police Department and accused Israel of indiscriminately killing Palestinians. The speech caused backlash, and the school decided not to allow any student speakers this year.

Students at the school filed a lawsuit last month against their institution, saying that move violates their freedom of speech.

"I would love to see people see this moment of students across the country [...] coming together to say like we want what's happening in Gaza to stop," Ale Humano, a student at CUNY School of Law, said when asked what she would like to see out of this commencement season.

"Even all of us that are thinking about graduation, there's so many people right now that are going like 'but this matters more right now,'' she added.

"We're hoping we can start kind of curtailing that taking away of a very essential First Amendment right for students, not just within our school, but across the country to be able to speak on this issue, because we are seeing it be taken away and seeing students get censored," said Humano.

She said aside from potential pro-Palestinian protests and speeches at commencement, actions such as those from the president of the American Civil Liberties Union help bring their cause forward. The ACLU head had backed out of speaking at CUNY's commencement due to the school's restriction on student speeches.

Protesters have spent weeks in the headlines, but Jacobson warned that interruptions to graduation ceremonies in particular could rub the public the wrong way.

“Disrupting these sorts of events, I don't think necessarily advances” the goal of the cause, he said. “They're acting out in a manner and in a place that is inappropriate and essentially punishing fellow students rather than punishing the school or punishing Israel. So I think this may be ultimately a futile effort.” 

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