US campuses splintered by protests over Israel-Palestine conflict

Demonstrators, school administrators, police are testing limits of safety, freedom of expression

By Ai Heping,Mingmei Li and Yifan Xu in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-06 07:44
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Rights versus wrongs

During the demonstrations, schools have weighed up free expression, including the right to peaceful protest, against safety risks and ensuring that protests don't encroach upon the rights of students, faculty and staff members.

Now many schools are wrestling with how to handle possible student protests during graduation ceremonies. Some schools plan to set up designated areas for protests to allow ceremonies to go forward without quashing free speech. School administrations are also hiring extra security and screening attendees at venues, AP reported.

A graduation ceremony at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday was briefly interrupted by dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters. As the ceremony got underway, about 75 protesters — many in kaffiyeh, a headdress worn by Arabs, and graduation caps — unfurled Palestinian flags and posters as they marched toward the stage chanting: "Regents, regents, you can't hide! You are funding genocide!"

One demonstrator carried a banner reading, "No universities left in Gaza". Others held Palestinian flags while others waved Israeli flags.

Campus police prevented the protesters from reaching the stage. US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro paused a few times during his remarks at the ceremony, saying at one point, "Ladies and gentlemen, if you can please draw your attention back to the podium."

A plane flew over the ceremony trailing a banner that said: "Divest from Israel now! Free Palestine".Another plane had a different message: "We stand with Israel. Jewish lives matter".

Officials said no one was arrested, and the protest did not seriously interrupt the nearly two-hour event, which was attended by tens of thousands of people.

Graduations rethink

At least two schools have altered their graduation ceremonies in light of the ongoing protests.

The University of Vermont announced on Friday that Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, would not deliver a commencement address scheduled for later this month.

The University of Southern California canceled its valedictorian commencement speech and appearances by celebrity speakers and its "main stage" commencement ceremony, citing the possibility of disruptions. On Friday, the university announced a "Trojan Family Graduate Celebration "in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for graduates to attend instead.

To head off possible disruptions of final exams and graduation ceremonies, a number of universities have struck deals with protesters, including Brown in Rhode Island, Northwestern in Illinois and Rutgers in New Jersey, CBS News reported on Saturday.

The deals included commitments by universities to review their investments in Israel, but with no promises about changing such investments.

"I think for some universities, it might be just a delaying tactic to defuse the protests," Ralph Young, a history professor who studies American dissent at Temple University in Philadelphia, told CBS News. "The end of the semester is happening now. And maybe by the time the next semester begins, there is a cease-fire in Gaza."

Columbia University is rethinking its commencement ceremony planned for May 15, according to a source at the university, NBC News reported.

Administrators indicated to student leaders at a meeting that they were unsure about the ceremony being held at the main campus in Manhattan because of security concerns.

A student representative said Columbia's administration was primarily concerned about outside protesters and was seeking an alternative venue.

The student leaders told the university that many students were concerned about school president Shafik speaking at the ceremony. "Her presence would be the cause of a lot of upset," one of them told NBC News.

In her message to the Columbia University community on why she requested police help to end the protests, Shafik said the students had paid a "high price", and missed out on the final days of the year in classrooms and residence halls.

"For those of you who are seniors, you're finishing college the same way you started: online," she said.

Xin Wen in Beijing contributed to this story.

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