Dear President Shafik,

Over the past six months, the Knight Institute has raised concerns with your administration, publicly and privately, regarding the University’s decisions and policies relating to free speech on campus. In light of the wrenching and dispiriting events of the past week, we feel compelled to do so again. In our view, the University’s decisions and policies have become disconnected from the values that are central to the University’s life and mission—including free speech, academic freedom, and equality—and we believe a course correction is urgently necessary.

We are deeply troubled, first, by the University’s severe and seemingly viewpoint-discriminatory enforcement of rules relating to student demonstrations. We wrote to you last year about the administration’s suspension of two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. The University’s initial explanation for the suspension strongly suggested that it had suspended the groups at least in part because of their political speech, and a senior administrator seemed to confirm as much in a later conversation with students, pointing to instances in which the groups had described Israel as an “apartheid state” and characterized Israel’s campaign in Gaza as “genocide.” As we noted at the time, it was not clear on what basis the University could conclude that this speech violated Columbia’s Rules of Conduct. These Rules guarantee broad protection for peaceful political speech, even for speech that is objectionable or offensive to some listeners, so long as the speech does not constitute a threat or harassment. That broad protection stems, as the Rules explain, from the University’s “vital interest in fostering a climate in which nothing is immune from scrutiny,” and they reflect the University’s “long tradition of valuing dissent and controversy.” For good reason, the Rules make clear that the University will not sanction speakers because of the viewpoints they express.

In the days after the University suspended the two student groups, administrators sought in some contexts to downplay the significance of its action by emphasizing that it had sanctioned student groups, not students. In subsequent months, however, the University initiated disciplinary proceedings against many students in connection with protests on campus. At the congressional hearing on April 17, you indicated that more than 90 disciplinary measures had been taken against students since October 7; this number has grown substantially since then. Of course, the enforcement of rules relating to student protests is not in itself an affront to free speech. It hardly needs to be said that the University has a responsibility to take action against genuine threats and harassment. It also has a legitimate interest in enforcing reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of demonstrations, particularly where their purpose is to protect other interests that sound in free speech. The Rules of Conduct note, for example, that these kinds of restrictions may be imposed to protect “the right of others to counter-demonstrate, to teach, or to engage in academic pursuits requiring uninterrupted attention.”

But it is our understanding that some students are currently being investigated and threatened with disciplinary sanctions for the same kind of political speech that led the University to suspend the two student groups. Others have been subjected to unjustifiably harsh penalties, including suspension, for engaging in protest that violated time, place, and manner restrictions but was by all accounts peaceful. Over the past few days, more than a hundred students who were engaged in peaceful protest have been suspended, arrested, and barred from common spaces on Columbia’s campus—the kinds of sanctions that would ordinarily be reserved for the most serious offenses.

Second, we were profoundly disappointed by the failure of Columbia’s leadership, at the congressional hearing, to mount any real defense of the Columbia community and its core values. Given the nature of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s questioning at its earlier hearings, we were not surprised that some Committee members seemed less interested in addressing the problem of antisemitism on campus—a subject worthy of serious attention—than in pressuring the University’s leadership to abandon the principles of free speech and academic freedom. That pressure required a forceful response.

A university committed to “promoting inquiry and advancing the sum of human knowledge,” as the American Association of University Professors put it a century ago, must guarantee to faculty “complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish results.” It is also necessary that any administrative sanctions imposed on faculty—including for extracurricular speech—be imposed only in accordance with processes that are transparent, established in advance, and consonant with due process and the principle of shared governance. We regret that the Committee may have been left with the misimpression that such sanctions can be imposed by administrators ad hoc, and even in response to congressional demands.

Some members of the Committee also interrogated Columbia’s leadership concerning the University’s readiness to punish students who use controversial political slogans. Here, again, we were dismayed that neither you nor the co-chairs defended foundational free speech principles. This campus has often been a venue for impassioned political debate. Often that debate has included speech that some find offensive. But there is no convincing argument that the pro-Palestinian slogans in themselves constitute threats or harassment as those terms are defined by Columbia’s policies. While in theory the University could carve these slogans out from the protection usually afforded to political speech, it could not do so without doing immense damage to principles that are central to any community that privileges free inquiry and the production of knowledge. Once one accepts that these political slogans can be rebranded as harassment or suppressed on the grounds that they are offensive or hurtful to others, there is no principled basis to limit the suppression to only these slogans.

A third concern stems from the University’s alarming decision to call on the NYPD to dismantle a student encampment and arrest dozens of students engaged in peaceful protest. This is the first time that the University has taken such a step in decades. Again, the University has a legitimate interest in enforcing reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of protests. The University’s rules also make clear, however, that external authorities should be engaged to end a protest only as a last resort—only when there is “a clear and present danger to persons, property, or the substantial functioning of any division of the University.” As we indicated in a statement issued last week, it is not evident to us how the encampment and protests posed such a danger, even if they were unauthorized. We note that, after the arrest, an NYPD spokesperson said that “the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.” The decision to involve dozens of police officers in riot gear also increased the risk of violence, and we wonder whether the University took this into account in deciding to pursue this course. More broadly, we fear that the presence of a large number of police officers on Columbia’s campus will create a charged, intimidating, and repressive atmosphere in which conflict will become more likely and more dangerous.

A fourth concern, and the final one we will raise here, relates to press access to Columbia’s campus. Our understanding is that some journalists are encountering difficulties gaining access to campus. While we appreciate that there are legitimate reasons for restricting access at this time, we urge you to ensure that these restrictions do not impede the press. Social media is rife with false and misleading information about the events that have transpired at Columbia over the past days. Facilitating press access to campus will help ensure that the public’s understanding of events taking place here is tied more closely to reality.

We convey these concerns to you out of a deep sense of responsibility to the Columbia community and to the mandate we were given. As you know, the Knight Institute is relatively new, having been founded less than a decade ago. Still, Institute staff now teach at Columbia’s law, engineering, and public policy schools, and work closely with faculty and students from across the University. Although much of our work is outward-facing, Columbia’s policies and practices relating to free speech and academic freedom have a direct effect on the Institute’s ability to carry out its broader mission. Our credibility and effectiveness within and outside Columbia stem in part from Columbia’s history as a forum for political discourse and a champion of free speech, academic freedom, and the free press. We share our concerns with you out of respect for that history and a commitment to these principles and our shared community.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.


Jameel Jaffer


cc: David Greenwald

Claire Shipman

Co-Chairs, Columbia University Board of Trustees