Protestors crossed a line

Published May 2, 2024

By Public Ed Works

Yes, in response to atrocities committed by the militant group Hamas, Israelis have engaged in quite literal overkill among Palestinians in Gaza.

And yes, Palestinian supporters have a constitutionally protected right in this country to protest what they see as genocide.

But when they broke through barriers, took down the American flag on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus and replaced it with another, they crossed a line.

Too many people have died for that flag, have died for the right of these very protesters to speak out, for the protesters to desecrate it.

Such actions might well also provoke an overreaction on the part of authorities.

IN THEIR STATEMENT on ordering police to clear the “Gaza solidarity encampment” on Polk Place early Tuesday morning, UNC-CH Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts and Provost Christopher Clemens said they had “constructive dialogue” over the weekend with students and others – many who they said were not part of the university community – about the rules for demonstrations.

The protesters wanted the university to disclose any investments in any U.S. companies that do business in Israel and disinvest in those companies. That’s easier said than done, though.1

Then protesters re-erected their tents on the quad.

“That changed Sunday evening when protestors backtracked on their commitment to comply with these policies,” Roberts and Clemens wrote. “The leaders of this group ended our attempts at constructive dialogue.”

“No one has the right to disrupt campus operations materially, nor to threaten or intimidate our students, nor to damage and destroy public property,” they said.

“We must consider the physical safety of all of our students, faculty and staff. In addition, we are alarmed at the rising accounts of antisemitic speech, and we categorically denounce this and any other incidents of prejudice.”2

Police from multiple law-enforcement agencies – including other UNC System campuses – swept through the encampment early Tuesday morning.

They detained 36 people for refusing to comply with orders to disperse.3 At last count, police cited 10 students and 20 people not affiliated with the university with trespassing. Another six were arrested and charged at the Orange County jail with trespassing.4

University officials cannot ignore demonstrations that have erupted at other campuses across the country. And if that many from outside the university were involved, it is indeed troubling.

IN A COLUMN SUNDAY for The New York Times, conservative commentator David French drew distinctions between free speech and other forms of protest.

“When universities can actually recognize and enforce the distinctions among free speech, civil disobedience and lawlessness, they can protect both the right of students to protest and the rights of students to study and learn in peace,” French wrote.

He then described a March protest at Vanderbilt University where pro-Palestinian students pushed past a security guard so forcefully that they injured him, then briefly occupied a university building.

“These students weren’t engaged in free speech. Nor were they engaged in true civil disobedience,” French wrote. “Civil disobedience does not include assault, and within hours the university shut them down.”

Three students were charged with assault, and another with vandalism. Three students were expelled and one was suspended.

“The message was clear: Every student can protest, but protest has to be peaceful and lawful. In taking this action, Vanderbilt was empowered by its posture of institutional neutrality. It does not take sides in matters of public dispute. Its fundamental role is to maintain a forum for speech, not to set the terms of the debate and certainly not to permit one side to break reasonable rules that protect education and safety on campus….

“Universities should not protect students from hurtful ideas, but they must protect their ability to peacefully live and learn in a community of scholars. There is no other viable alternative.”5

IT SEEMS THAT’S what Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts did here when protesters removed the U.S. flag.

“To take down that flag and put up another flag, no matter what other flag it is, that’s antithetical to who we are and what this university stands for and what we have done for 229 years,” Roberts told reporters after the American flag was restored.

“The broad majority of this campus knows how to express their views without shouting, without violating university policy. That flag will stand here as long as I’m chancellor.

“Tell the students that we’re going to keep them safe from a very small minority of students who want to disrupt their experience,” he said.6