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Police Remove Protest Encampment at University of Chicago

Police officers removed the pro-Palestinian protest encampment at the University of Chicago early Tuesday, a move that was sure to be closely watched across higher education because the university has long considered itself a model for free expression on campus.

Shortly before 5 a.m. local time, the university’s police arrived in riot helmets and began clearing tents. Protesters appeared to leave peacefully, but several dozen gathered on a nearby walkway and chanted in front of a line of officers who blocked the quad where the camp had been.

When tents went up amid the Gothic architecture on the University of Chicago’s quad on April 29, administrators initially took a permissive view. But that changed on Friday when negotiations between protesters and university leaders stalled, and the university’s president, Paul Alivisatos, wrote a letter saying demonstrators had violated policies and engaged in vandalism. He said the encampment “cannot continue.”

“I stated that we would only intervene if what might have been an exercise of free expression blocks the learning or expression of others or substantially disrupts the functioning or safety of the university,” Dr. Alivisatos wrote. “Without an agreement to end the encampment, we have reached that point.”

The encampment at the University of Chicago, a highly selective private institution, was among dozens across the country that have tested campus leaders and posed thorny questions about the balance between free speech and safety. But the Chicago camp took on added significance because the university is the home of the Chicago statement, a set of free speech standards adopted in 2015 that has become a touchstone and guide for colleges across the country.

Dr. Alivisatos initially pointed to those principles when the tents went up, and he took no immediate action to disband the encampment. But in the days that followed, he said, some protesters vandalized buildings, blocked walkways, destroyed a nearby installation of Israeli flags and flew a Palestinian flag from a university flagpole.

Unlike some universities facing protests as the academic year just ended or will soon conclude, the University of Chicago follows a quarter system and will remain in session all month. Its graduation ceremony is June 1.

“The encampment has created systematic disruption of campus,” said Dr. Alivisatos, a chemist who became president of the university in 2021. “Protesters are monopolizing areas of the main quad at the expense of other members of our community. Clear violations of policies have only increased.”

In a statement posted online on Sunday afternoon, a group leading the encampment, UChicago United for Palestine, accused administrators of trying “to trick or intimidate our movement into dismantling the encampment in exchange for hollow promises.” The group asked supporters “to be prepared to mobilize en masse” within 24 hours.

“They are afraid of our power,” the group said in its statement. “We will not be intimidated, distracted or talked down. We will remain.”

Around midday Friday, a few hours after Dr. Alivisatos said that the encampment could not continue, some protesters and counterprotesters briefly fought one another, drawing an increased response by city and university police officers. But by that evening, the situation had calmed considerably, and some students were studying quietly on the quad while protesters milled about in their camp.

Mayor Brandon Johnson of Chicago, a Democrat, issued a statement on Friday saying that he had been in touch with Dr. Alivisatos and had “made clear my commitment to free speech and safety on college campuses.”

The University of Chicago, which has about 18,000 students, including around 7,600 undergraduates, has been praised by conservatives and free speech advocates in recent years for its approach to expression on its campus. As part of its free speech philosophy, the university also put forward the principle of institutional neutrality.

In a 1967 declaration, the university called for schools to remain neutral on political and social matters, saying a campus “is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” But at other colleges over the years, students have frequently and successfully pressed their administrations to take positions on matters like police brutality and global warming.

In August 2016, the University of Chicago informed incoming first-year students: “We do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Versions of the university’s declaration of free speech principles have been adopted by dozens of other colleges in recent years.

“In a word, the university’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed,” the 2015 declaration said.

But the statement also describes clear limits, including a right to prohibit illegal activities and speech “that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment.”

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