Columbia University sued for suspending student groups over pro-Palestine protests

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against Columbia University on Tuesday over the university’s suspension of a pair of pro-Palestine student groups last fall after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

Columbia suspended the groups, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), in November after they held what the university described as unauthorized protests, citing campus safety.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and Palestine Legal suit accuses the university of targeting the two student groups over the protests and disproportionately punishing them with suspension over what the suit describes as merely procedural violations.

“Universities should be havens for robust debate, discussion, and learning — not sites of censorship where administrators, donors, and politicians squash political discourse they don’t approve of,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. “These student groups were peacefully speaking out on a critical global conflict, only to have Columbia University ignore their own longstanding, existing rules and abruptly suspend the organizations.

“That’s retaliatory, it’s targeted, and it flies in the face of the free speech principles that institutes of higher learning should be defending,” she continued. “Students protesting at private colleges still have the right to fair, equal treatment — and we are ready to fight that battle in court.”

Private universities are not bound by the First Amendment, though New York law requires that schools follow their own policy in disciplinary proceedings. The suit alleges that Columbia broke its own policies in targeting the student groups.

SJP and JVP are at the center of a national debate over campus protests in relation to the Israel-Hamas war, with colleges and universities struggling to balance speech concerns with accusations of antisemitism and pressure from Congress on the topic.

Florida education leaders ordered that SJP be banned from public university campuses just weeks before Columbia suspended the groups, sparking a legal challenge and outrage from activists.

The suit follows a threat from the NYCLU last month, with the organization demanding that Columbia reinstate the groups in order to avoid legal action.

Columbia University declined to comment on the suit, noting that it does comment on pending litigation. A university spokesperson said the student organizations have met with staff about ending the suspensions.

“Representatives from the group have met with staff advisers to discuss steps toward reinstatement. Most importantly, the groups would have to agree to fully comply with the university’s policies and procedures,” the spokesperson said. “If the groups agree to follow these prescribed steps and fully comply with university rules, they may be reinstated. At present, they have not yet committed to doing so and remain suspended.”

Story updated at 10:07 p.m.

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