Prosecutors drop nearly 80 arrests from a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas

DALLAS (AP) — Nearly 80 criminal trespass arrests stemming from a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas have been dismissed, a prosecutor said Wednesday, the latest dropped charges against demonstrators arrested on college campuses across the U.S. this spring.

Delia Garza, a Democrat who is the elected attorney for Travis County, said 79 criminal trespass cases that were dismissed all stemmed from the April 29 protest. She said cases involving other offenses remain pending.

Garza said her office determined it couldn't meet the legal burden to prove the cases beyond a reasonable doubt. She said factors that were considered included whether the protesters' right to free speech had been violated, whether prosecutors had sufficient evidence to seek a conviction and if pursuing the case was in the interest of justice.

At campuses across the U.S. this spring, demonstrators sparred over the Israel-Hamas war. Texas' protest and others grew out of Columbia University’s early demonstrations.

Last week, prosecutors in New York announced that dozens of Columbia students who were arrested for occupying a campus building as part of a pro-Palestinian protest would have their criminal charges dropped. The Manhattan district attorney’s office said it would not pursue criminal charges for 31 of the 46 people initially arrested on trespassing charges inside the administration building.

On April 29 at UT, officers in riot gear encircled about 100 sitting protesters, dragging or carrying them out one by one amid screams. Another group of demonstrators trapped police and a van full of arrestees between buildings, creating a mass of bodies pushing and shoving. Officers used pepper spray and flash-bang devices to clear the crowd.

The university said in a statement at the time that many of the protesters weren’t affiliated with the school and that encampments were prohibited on the campus in the state capital. The school also alleged that some demonstrators were “physically and verbally combative” with university staff, prompting officials to call law enforcement. The Texas Department of Public Safety said arrests were made at the behest of the university and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Garza said she wished that state and university leadership had looked for "another solution to allow these students to voice what they felt like they needed to voice.” She said the reaction to the protests showed that elected leaders “continue to prioritize extreme government outreach over actual public safety.”

In a statement, UT said the school was “deeply disappointed” by Garza’s actions, adding that the school “will continue to use the law enforcement and administrative tools at our disposal to maintain safety and operational continuity for our 53,000 students who come to campus to learn, regardless of whether the criminal justice system shares this commitment.”

“Free speech is welcome on our campus. Violating laws or rules is not," the statement said. “Actions that violate laws and Institutional Rules should be met with consequences, not with political posturing and press conferences.”