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Schools try to balance freedom of speech and security during student protests


The turmoil on college campuses over the Israel-Hamas War continues to spread. Protests and arrests at Columbia University have been followed by demonstrations and arrests at NYU and Yale as well as rallies in sit-ins at Michigan, Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. While many campuses remain calm, administrators are working to ensure the safety of all their students. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo reports.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Colleges are walking a fine line this week as students on both sides of a deeply emotional conflict take to their campuses to protest. The demonstration, says Ted Mitchell...

TED MITCHELL: They raise this really complicated tension between freedom of speech and protecting student safety.

CARRILLO: Mitchell is the president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization for higher-ed institutions. He's been following closely as more than a hundred students were arrested during a peaceful protest at Columbia this weekend, dozens more at Yale and then last night at NYU. Mitchell says two things are critical right now for campus leaders.

MITCHELL: First of all, to be clear about what campus policies are and what they're not, and then, second, to be consistent - and this is where I think there's been a lot of struggle, where one group feels that they are being treated differently than another group. That's a very dangerous spot for higher-ed administrators to be.

CARRILLO: At Ohio State University last week, a protest march on campus featured students chanting and calling for the university to divest from Israeli companies. Administrators are calling for students to treat each other with respect and dignity. In a statement, spokesman Ben Johnson noted that, so far, no students have been removed, but police and trained staff are on-site for demonstrations.

BEN JOHNSON: And we remind students, faculty and staff frequently that when protected speech becomes incitement or becomes a threat of violence, the university has and will always move quickly to enforce the law and enforce university policy.

CARRILLO: Harvard's president Alan Garber told the student newspaper that he could not rule out the use of police, but added that the school has a very high bar before doing so. At the University of Michigan, students have also set up an encampment on the main quad. Officials at the university provided a statement to NPR. It reads, students are able to engage in peaceful protests in many places on campus. And at the same time, the university has a responsibility to maintain an environment that is conducive to learning and academic success. No one has the right to substantially disrupt university activities or to violate laws or university policies.

Mitchell from the American Council on Education says colleges can and will move past this turmoil, but it will take time.

MITCHELL: Let's be clear. Universities are not crumbling. The actions taking place on universities are setting the table for long, deep debates - whether it's debates about investment in Israel or about two-state solutions to the Middle East politics or about the history of the region. And so this is a loud way of setting that table for the future.

CARRILLO: With graduation mere weeks away, it may be some time before students and faculty get to sit down at that table and work things through. Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAPSODY SONG, "ASTEROIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sequoia Carrillo
Sequoia Carrillo is a reporter for NPR's Education Team. Along with covering big stories like the student debt crisis and segregation in K-12 schools, she reports on innovation in the education space — sometimes for Code Switch.