Case Study

Protesters at Columbia University disrupt a class


In October 2017, a group of student protesters entered the Columbia University classroom of Suzanne Goldberg, a law professor and the executive vice president of the Office of Student Life, which is partly responsible for overseeing the school’s response to sexual assault and harassment. The students were protesting university sexual harassment and assault policies that they believed to be ineffective. During class, the students held signs and distributed pamphlets as one of them read a prepared statement, and they refused to leave when Goldberg repeatedly asked them to. 

PEN America Analysis

While there should be a high threshold for disciplinary action in response to peaceful student protests, cases where protests infringe on students’ ability to learn can cross that line. The students in this case clearly violated the school’s code of conduct, which prohibits “interrupting a university function” and “causing a noise that substantially hinders others in their normal academic activities.” Students participating in such a protest should be aware they may face disciplinary action as a result, and the university in this case should make clear that such disruptions are not permissible. A failure to punish clear disciplinary infractions, impermissible encroachments on speech, and acts of violence signals that university norms and values won’t be enforced and can create the impression that justice is meted out selectively. At the same time, when institutions punish protesters too harshly, they risk unnecessarily chilling students’ free speech. A retributive mindset can lead to harsher punishments than necessary, or to a situation in which discipline is misapplied. University leaders should try to balance these concerns, punishing disruptions only when it’s truly warranted. The school could also encourage protest in other forums, supporting students who wish to bring a concern to the fore.

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