Getting to the heart of what the Columbia encampment is and is not about

April 26, 2024 — It only takes a moment or two of thinking about the entirely uncontroversial principle that time, place, and manner restrictions constitute a permissible limitation on free speech and expression to understand what the Columbia encampment is and is not about, and to appreciate that most commentary has failed to draw the proper line between a peaceful action and one that, on multiple dimensions, is not.

The encampment is not about protecting free speech. There are numerous ways that Columbia students can and do regularly protest and convey their messages. They include tabling; leafleting; rallying at the Sundial, other central campus locations, and at the main Broadway and Amsterdam entrances to campus; holding vigils outside of Low Library, the main administration building; marching around the campus; and protesting outside of the building on campus where someone who has a different viewpoint is trying to speak. There simply isn’t a serious argument that student speech at Columbia isn’t robustly protected.

The encampment is about rejecting the idea and the practice of a Columbia community, asserting power and authority, and, when unchecked, effectively sending a message of intimidation to non-participants. Both the original encampment, on South Field East, and the newer location, on South Field West, have been routinely described as “lawns,” as though there is a ton of other readily accessible green space. There isn’t. Columbia’s central campus is small.

As you can see from the map, these are the two biggest green spaces, and the ones that are: (a) directly outside of the main library (Butler); (b) in closest proximity to five dormitories (Furnald and Carman to the west; Jay, Wallach, and Hartley to the east); and (c) close by two academic buildings (Pulitzer and Hamilton).


The first thing that the encampment does is to say to the balance of Columbia students, “This space is ours, not yours. We’re not reserving it from noon to 2pm today for a big rally; we’re reserving it every day, 24 hours a day. You do NOT get to have your usual spot to eat lunch or hang out EVER. You do not get to catch up on assignments on your blanket EVER.” This is a fundamental principle of the encampment, important enough so that it is zealously POLICED by members of the encampment.

The encampment goes far beyond giving participants the opportunity to hear messages with which they may not be familiar or with which they vehemently disagree. Instead, the encampment insists that all students must be exposed to the participants’ message continuously.

Finally, the encampment, through noise at all hours of the day and night, is powerfully disruptive of the ability of other students to work and study.

It’s easy to see why time, place, and manner restrictions would be in place. And it’s just as easy to see that, if warnings don’t work, there needs to be enforcement. Otherwise, the restrictions exist in name only.

And what if – as has been the case so far – the restrictions do exist in name only? That is the highest aspiration of the organizers and participants. That fact – shouted more loudly than any rhetoric – says both to the administration and to the student body – “your rules do NOT apply to us. WE have colonized this part of the campus for our exclusive use. WE constitute the authority here. WE are untouchable.”

They might just as well be actors in the skit about oil company executives from the earliest days of Saturday Night Live: “Do what we say, and no one gets hurt.” (Graphically illuminated by the spectacle the other night of a leading organizer announcing that “there’s a Zionist in the encampment,” and forming a human chain with other encampment participants to march forward to drive out the Zionist – perceived as such since the fellow student in question was wearing a Jewish star).

I have always been deeply troubled by “safetyism,” and I remained deeply troubled by it. But a demonstration’s “peacefulness” is not measured simply by how much physical violence has been generated. The encampment is, and was intended to be, profoundly disruptive to other students. The encampment is, and was intended to be, profoundly intimidating to students who do not share the views of the participants. That kind of action is not neatly or fairly summed up as “peaceful.”

To return to the issue of enforcement, there is, for individual students, a range of interim disciplinary steps that are available. It’s not surprising that a severe violation of University rules would result In severe interim measures. Permanent steps taken in response to a student’s conduct should, of course, be accompanied by the process that is due in the academic context (which is not, contrary to what many people who should know better say, the same as the process that is due in court).

None of that, of course, deals with the immediate issue of the harms being caused by the continuation of the encampment. President Shafik got herself into trouble by describing to the NYPD the existence of a “clear and present danger,” a characterization that drew much mockery. If she had had better counsel, she would have instead gone to the heart of the matter: there is a serious threat to the ability of the University to protect the rights of its students to go to classes and to study and to live without the intimidation the encampment causes

Would it be better if the encampment disbands voluntarily? Yes.

Would campus security taking action be second best? Not if you’re aware of what Columbia Security is and isn’t capable of.

That leaves the NYPD. There are few who know anything about Columbia who are not familiar with what can legitimately be described as a brutal police response in 1968. But there is another piece of information from a much more recent time. The 100+ arrests that were carried out last week were carried out professionally and without any undue force.

You can certainly insist that there shouldn’t be time, place, or manner restrictions at all.

You can take the position that the restrictions should be exhortatory only.

But if you acknowledge that those restrictions are legitimate, and your view of negotiating is something other than “just agree to all of the protesters’ demands,” then you need to say: how should enforcement in the face of persistent non-compliance be handled?

You’ll notice that, in this entire essay, I have not said anything that hinges on viewpoint. I have not referenced anything about physical harms (and threats of harm) that have been spoken by encampment members and supporters.

The issue of the need to enforce reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions has not been top of mind for many. I recommend urgently giving that issue more thought.

The foregoing was written by Craig Gurian, the executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center. He received his undergraduate degree from the College in the late 1970s; his law degree from the Law School in the early 1980s; his master’s degree in United States history in the early 2000s from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and has taught University Writing on occasion to first-year Columbia undergraduates, most recently in Spring 2022.