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Students Want Charges Dropped. What Is the Right Price for Protests?

Youssef Hasweh expected to receive his diploma from the University of Chicago on Saturday.

What he got instead was an email from the associate dean of students informing him that, because he was under investigation for his participation in a protest encampment on the campus quad, “your degree will not be conferred until the resolution of this matter.”

Like scores of other student demonstrators across the country, Mr. Hasweh has been swept up into a kind of disciplinary limbo. Although he was allowed to participate in graduation, his university is withholding his degree until it determines whether and how to punish him for breaking its code of conduct for refusing to vacate an encampment, which the police cleared on May 7.

He has already been formally reprimanded by the university for being part of a group that occupied an administration building last year in a protest over the Israel-Hamas war.

The question of how harshly to discipline these students cuts deep in academia, where many universities take pride in their history of student activism, on issues such as civil rights, the Vietnam War, South African apartheid and income inequality. Some faculty members themselves celebrate such activism and encourage students to become politically involved — and have also faced arrest and discipline for doing so.

But today, some students have made a demand of their colleges that is vexing administrators and veterans of past social movements: They want all charges against them, both academic and legal, dropped. Many students have been charged with criminal misdemeanors, such as trespassing. Others have faced discipline from their universities, which can range from a warning on their records to suspensions and expulsions.

“Nothing,” he said. As someone who is part Palestinian, he added, “I think it’s hypocritical for them to say we’re being disruptive when they’re actively investing in a genocide that is very disruptive to my family.” At Chicago’s graduation on Saturday, dozens of students walked out to register their disapproval of the university’s handling of cases like Mr. Hasweh’s.

When the encampments first sprouted this spring, universities struggled with how to respond — many tolerating them at first, but then sending in the police after students refused repeated orders to disperse. Since Columbia first arrested protesters on April 18, there have been more than 3,000 arrests on campuses across the country, at institutions including California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, and Emory University.

Now university administrators are confronting a similar conundrum over disciplinary action now that most of the encampments are gone.

Be too lenient, and colleges risk encouraging more encampments when students return in the fall. Coming down too hard — by denying degrees or leaving students with permanent arrest records — can seem too punitive a response to mostly nonviolent protests and could jeopardize the futures of the students the universities are supposed to mold into productive citizens.

Some institutions have agreed to a lighter approach, with conditions. At Johns Hopkins University, for instance, the administration said it would end disciplinary proceedings for students who had pitched an encampment if they agreed not to establish another one or otherwise disrupt campus life.

Others, like Brown, have flatly refused requests for leniency. Activists and their allies had called on the university to demand that local law enforcement officials drop criminal charges against 41 students arrested in December during a sit-in.

In response, Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, wrote to the student body that those arrested had made an “informed choice,” and she added that asking to be absolved of responsibility was not consistent with how civil disobedience is supposed to work. “The practice of civil disobedience means accepting the consequences of decisions on matters of conscience,” she said.

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963 that during workshops on nonviolent protest, he would ask participants, “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

“One who breaks an unjust law,” Dr. King declared, “must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

Paying a personal cost in pursuit of a cause has historically helped social movements build popular support, according to scholars.

“You do that to rouse the conscience of the nation or the institutional power in question — to have it reckon with what you believe is a greater moral imperative,” said Tony Banout, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression.

“I think that tradition is laudable, and society has improved measurably because of activists who are willing to engage in that,” he said.

Civil rights protesters made that cost seem real, as they occupied lunch counters and marched peacefully in the streets dressed in suits, and in turn often faced brutal repression from the police.

Few of today’s protesters have faced anything approaching that kind of brutality or punishment. But they say that they are worried about being identified and harassed — or doxxed — and wear masks or kaffiyehs to conceal their identities. Some refuse to give their names even as they sit across from administrators to negotiate.

The anonymity and the disavowal of penalties could weaken their movement, Dr. Banout said.

“My fear,” he said, “is it actually alienates people, and ultimately does not advance the alleviation of suffering in Gaza.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the veteran civil rights activist, said he believed this generation of student protesters is not monolithic, with some willing to accept more responsibility for civil disobedience than others — as in any other generation. But he added that among some demonstrators, he had detected a sense of entitlement in the desire to avoid consequences.

“When you express entitlement, then you cannot be fighting for the disenfranchised,” he said.

As someone who has been arrested a number of times and spent nearly three months in jail for protesting military bombing exercises on Vieques, Mr. Sharpton said he understood why activists would fight the charges against them.

No student is likely to spend months in jail. But, he added, “you must be prepared to say the cause is more important than my freedom.”

A generational shift in attitudes toward law enforcement personnel also appears to be a factor in why these students are unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the charges against them. Many experienced their political awakening in the mass uprising after George Floyd’s murder by police officers in 2020, when they were in high school. Those demonstrations were animated by an antipathy toward — and in many cases a desire to abolish — the police.

At George Washington University’s graduation, Nam Lam, a student in international affairs, noted with dismay the fences and security checkpoints the school had erected all around. That, combined with the use of police force to clear an encampment on campus, made him uneasy.

“It’s been hard to process, just the large police presence and pepper-spraying students,” Mr. Lam said.

Students and their faculty supporters say disciplinary measures against protesters are really about suppressing free speech — something that the leaders of their universities, as self-described incubators of robust debate, should know is wrong.

And some faculty members also see university overreach. Harvard denied 13 seniors their degrees while their disciplinary cases moved forward, leading hundreds of students to walk out of the graduation ceremony last month.

Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard who advised some of the students facing discipline, said the university’s response was harsher than it had been with encampments for other causes, such as Occupy Wall Street, divesting from fossil fuels and supporting a living wage proposal.

“This seems like an over-enforcement, a break with precedent,” he said. “And it raises a concern that they’re more concerned about the content of the speech than with an equal application of punishment.”

But Mr. Enos did have a caveat. Protests over the environment and raising wages are not going to make anyone of a particular religion or identity uncomfortable.

“There certainly weren’t people on campus who felt threatened by that,” he said, adding that it was reasonable to consider whether some of the protest activity had made Jewish students feel threatened.

Any protest movement risks losing the public’s support if its methods are seen as too obnoxious or extreme. Robb Willer, a professor of sociology at Stanford University and director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab there, said that he thought the student demonstrations had not reached that point.

But even isolated incidents of violent behavior or extreme rhetoric can do damage, he said. “Occasional excesses do real outsized harm, drive away natural constituencies, and are wrong,” Dr. Willer said. A study for which he was a co-author concluded that certain forms of protest — inflammatory rhetoric, blocking traffic and vandalism — are effective in helping a movement gain publicity but that those tactics ultimately repel people.

There has been little consistency at universities over how punishments are meted out and how long that process takes. The president of Northwestern University said during a congressional hearing recently that no students had been suspended but that “lots” of investigations were underway. At the same hearing, the president of Rutgers said the university had suspended four. In some more liberal jurisdictions — Chicago and Austin, for instance — prosecutors, not university administrators, have dropped criminal trespassing charges.

At Yale, Craig Birckhead-Morton learned just before graduation that he would be getting his degree, despite having been arrested twice during protests. (If a disciplinary case is still in progress at the time of a senior’s graduation, the student’s degree is withheld until the case is resolved.)

“It was something I was anxious about, but I feel like there’s no backing down on this issue,” he said. He received a formal reprimand.

During Yale’s commencement ceremonies, some students expressed support for their peers who were facing charges. One, Lex Schultz, held up a banner that read, “Drop all charges.”

JoAnna Daemmrich contributed reporting from Washington and Gaya Gupta from New Haven, Conn.

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