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State of Texas: Campus protest demands not likely to be met

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Protesters at the University of Texas have made specific demands during their demonstrations on campus. So far, there's little sign that those demands will be met.

The demands are in four parts. The first one is for the University of Texas to divest from weapons manufacturing companies that sell arms to the Israel Defense Force. Supporters of divestment claim that the UT system funds the war in Gaza through those investments.

The next two demands deal with academic and legal immunity from prosecution or disciplinary action for their protests, whether they were arrested for them or not.

The fourth demand is the resignation of UT Austin President Jay Hartzell. This comes as about 600 faculty members signed a letter of no confidence, saying that they can't trust Hartzell anymore to protect students both physically and in the rights to free expression.

There is little, if any, indication that the university plans to address the protest demands.

The university is trying to impress upon the public that many of the protesters are not students who are protesting in good faith. Statements to the media have emphasized the number of people not affiliated with the university who have been arrested.

On Friday, the Houston Chronicle posted an opinion piece from Hartzell, where he said that the demonstrations on campus were criminal trespassing, not protests.

Protesters maintain that they will keep holding protests until their demands are met in full. That could set the stage for more tension, with graduation ceremonies scheduled in the coming week at the university.

Over 600 UT Austin faculty sign letter of no-confidence in President Hartzell

Hundreds of University of Texas at Austin faculty signed a letter saying they "no longer have confidence in President Jay Hartzell," following a series of pro-Palestinian protests on campus over the last week.

The UT Austin chapter of the American Association of University Professors was behind the letter, which was signed by more than 620 UT faculty members. For context, the university has 3,000 teaching faculty.

The letter states, "President [Hartzell] has shown himself to be unresponsive to urgent faculty, staff, and student concerns. He has violated our trust."

The letter said Hartzell put people in danger by bringing state troopers to "forcibly disperse students gathering for a peaceful teach-in."

The AAUP said it sent the letter to both Hartzell and the UT Faculty Council on Monday.

The letter demanded the following:

  • Criminal charges be dropped against students and others
  • Students not face disciplinary action at UT for the protest
  • The university respects the First Amendment free speech rights of students and faculty

In a statement released following the protest on April 24, Hartzell said, “The protesters tried to deliver on their stated intent to occupy campus. People not affiliated with UT joined them, and many ignored University officials’ continual pleas for restraint and to immediately disperse.”

Hartzell said the university was prepared, “with the necessary support to maintain campus operations and ensure the safety, well-being and learning environment for our more than 50,000 students.”

In a university statement following Monday's protest, UT said 45 of the 79 people arrested on campus were not affiliated with the university.

  • Law enforcement respond to pro-Palestine protest on UT campus Monday, April 29, 2024. (KXAN Photo/Andy Way)

Additionally, the university said “guns, buckets of large rocks and bricks” were confiscated during Monday's protest.

Texas State University Political Science Professor William DeSoto said no-confidence votes don't carry any legal or official power to remove officials.

"The appointments of university administrators are done by the Board of Regents," DeSoto said. "The board of regents are appointed by the governor, and so they must make decisions about campus administrators."

However, studies show they can lead to change.

The Chronicle of Higher Education looked at more than 230 no-confidence votes dating back to 1989. They found that a little more than half of presidents ended up leaving office within a year.

Ultimately, DeSoto said it speaks to the relationship between faculty and the president.

"This relationship is really important," DeSoto said. "When the relationship is broken, I think this is damaging."

Hartzell has also received significant support for his response to the protests, including from donors and the Board of Regents. Gov. Greg Abbott praised the move to prevent protesters from creating encampments on campus. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, credited Hartzell's approach for preventing the levels of violence seen on other campuses.

"I suggest that these administrations take notes from my friend, UT Austin president Jay Hartzell, who has taken swift action to break up demonstrations before things turn violent," said Cornyn during a news conference in D.C.

Protest response differs on Texas campuses

There have been protests at other Texas colleges and universities, but not the same immediate police response seen at UT Austin, with a show of force from state, local and campus officers.

Internal memos we obtained from the university show leaders wanted "significant police presence" to prevent violent situations seen at encampments at other campuses around the country.

Jennifer Szimanski, Director of Public Affairs for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said information about the initial rally likely led to the large response.

"Deployment of this type of force is used when there is intelligence that is gathered... that there are threats to the university," Szimanski said.

Raneem, a UT student taking part in the protest told us the response surprised her. "I did not think we would be met with this much police presence, especially because all we were doing as students was expressing our First Amendment rights." She said protesters did not cause the conflict.

"All the violence and chaos... was incited by this institution and the police," she said.

Some Jewish students voiced support for the response, telling reporters they felt safer having the law enforcement on campus.

Dr. Roy Taylor, Chief of Capital Police in Raleigh, NC, says officers responding to a protest face a delicate balance.

"I would start out with officers in regularly attired uniform, so that we're not escalating the situation. We're not coming in in full riot gear and armored vehicles," Taylor said.

"It's not that the law enforcement officers or agencies want to be involved in it right away, but they do need to plan and be prepared," Taylor added.

Journalist accused of assaulting officer during protest

Police arrested 57 people during the protest at UT Austin on April 24. Only one person still faces charges from that day.

Austin photojournalist Carlos Sanchez was handcuffed while on the job. His camera was sending live pictures from the scene when he was pulled to the ground by DPS and arrested. Sanchez was charged with interference and misdemeanor assault.

According to the arrest affidavit, DPS reviewed body camera footage and accused Sanchez of disobeying "repeated commands" to "disperse." The affidavit said he intentionally lunged at a trooper "at least two times, striking him with the camera between his lower neck and head area."

An attorney for Sanchez denied the claims in the affidavit, saying he "inadvertently bumped" into the trooper. In a statement, the attorney wrote "we look forward to someone taking an unbiased look at the evidence and exonerating Mr. Sanchez."

The arrest sparked condemnation from more than 40 journalism and press freedom organizations. One of the fiercest critics is Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

"You have someone who has a 15-pound camera on his shoulder, his eye is in the eye scope, he can barely see what's going on around him... by the way, he's live streaming. I don't know a lot of people who intentionally, especially if they're a journalist, be filming live the action of committing a crime. It just doesn't make any sense," Blaize-Hopkins said.

She worries that the arrest could have a chilling effect on journalists covering protests.

"We have a constitutional right to be on the ground to be the first witnesses and the rough draft of history so that we can keep the public informed. Just let us do our jobs," she said.

DPS said in a statement that it understands a journalist's rights to cover events, and that the department works to protect those rights and to ensure that state law is followed. However, they believe that this incident was an assault.

Bill to define antisemitism passes U.S. House

Critics of the campus demonstrations claim some protestors are engaging in antisemitic behavior. But there are disputes over what antisemitism is, and is not. Some in Congress want to make the definition more clear.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act passed the House on Wednesday with bipartisan support. The vote came after Texas Republican congressman Michael Burgess helped push the bill through the House Rules Committee.

"Congress must clearly define antisemitism so universities are empowered to take appropriate and decisive steps to keep Jewish students safe and respond to exercises of speech that are so hostile and discriminatory that it's not covered by protections enshrined to the First Amendment," said Burgess during the committee hearing.

The bill aims to codify a definition of antisemitism in federal law. It relies on a definition of antisemitism established by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

If the bill becomes law, the Department of Education would have more leeway to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Supporters believe the measure gives college administrators more ability to protect students.

Opponents say the bill violates protesters' constitutional rights. Some lawmakers who voted against the bill raised concerns that criticism of the Israeli government could be considered antisemitic.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

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