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Editorial: UCLA must respect encampment’s peaceful protesters, protect students’ free speech

By Editorial Board

April 28, 2024 1:52 p.m.

On Thursday morning, hundreds of UCLA students gathered outside Royce Hall with food, water, tents and medical supplies, declaring their encampment in solidarity with Palestine.

As this encampment joins other anti-war protests at universities across the nation, UCLA is tasked with upholding the principle of freedom of expression. From Columbia University to the University of Southern California, we’ve seen university administrations falter in their missions to defend students’ rights to peaceful assembly and free speech. It is therefore pivotal for our university to approach this protest without escalating tensions or suppressing civil discourse as other academic institutions have done these past weeks.

While maintaining safety during protests is important, the responses to nonviolent pro-Palestine demonstrations from numerous universities this week have been extreme and unwarranted, with these institutions using the guise of “safety” to silence student activism.

On April 18, Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, called on the New York Police Department to forcibly remove protesters from campus grounds, alleging in the letter to NYPD that the protesters were “in violation of the University’s rules and policies and must disperse.” Over 100 students from both Columbia University and Emerson College were arrested and suspended.

At the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, state troopers in riot gear arrested more than 50 peaceful protesters on campus, in addition to a journalist with the local Fox 7 news, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott calling for the participating students to be expelled. At Arizona State University, the university turned on the lawn’s sprinklers to deter students from gathering, with several protesters arrested for setting up unapproved encampments.

These measures did not ensure students’ safety. If anything, it was the aggressive efforts from universities that jeopardized the students’ safety on campus and turned nonviolent demonstrations into chaos. What began as a peaceful exercise of free speech and assembly turned into areas where police have thrown students to the ground and engaged in mass arrests.

With the demonstration at UCLA growing in size over the past couple days, it is crucial that our university does not follow the actions of these other institutions. Instead, UCLA must respect the rights of students to express their views safely and peacefully.

Additionally, when it comes to activism on campus, it is worth noting UCLA’s history of attempting to restrict student movements – even the movements that our university has retroactively praised decades later. In 1969, for example, over 1,500 students congregated outside a UC Regents meeting on campus to protest the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and call for communication between Chancellor Charles E. Young and activists, before they were dispersed by over 200 police officers sent by the university.

On April 23, 1985, over 2,000 students and UCLA community members gathered at Murphy Hall, protesting apartheid in South Africa and the UC’s investments in the nation. Two days later, during a sleep-in at Murphy Hall, 20 students were arrested as the university attempted to oust the protesters. However, in 1986, the UC Regents voted to divest $3.1 billion from companies engaging in business with South Africa’s government – a success that the University now praises student activists for.

These anti-war and divestment protests from the past echo similar sentiments of the protesters on UCLA’s campus today. If UCLA were to attempt to disperse, subdue or stifle the students joining the encampment, our university would repeat its history of stifling the voices of those attempting to advocate for institutional change. UCLA must not adhere to the precedent that they have set for themselves regarding repressive responses to student activism.

While the university must be held accountable, our collective goal to maintain peaceful protests can only be accomplished in tandem with the students participating. During the third night of encampment at UCLA, an influx of counter-protesters supporting Israel gathered with speakers and megaphones, harassing pro-Palestine participants and attempting to climb over barricades.

The Board condemns any disruptions of peace by counter-protesters, as acts of violence are contradictory to our values as a university.

UCLA is an intellectual institution: It prides itself on teaching students the importance of critical thinking and exchanging ideas. The recent demonstrations fall in line with this educational goal of allowing students to engage in real-world dialogues. It would thus be hypocritical of the administration to not support their students’ freedom of speech.

One of the five True Bruin Values we are preached about upon committing to UCLA is “Respect.” So long as protesters remain respectful of the rights and dignity of other students, we expect the university to do the same in return.

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