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Exposed, Disciplined: American Students Count the Cost of Gaza Protests

What is the context?

Some American students report doxxing and discrimination after participating in pro-Palestinian protests, fear their future jobs may be at risk

  • Students fear consequences of protests in Gaza Strip
  • Some report doxxing and disciplinary action by the university
  • Jewish groups document rise in anti-Semitism since October 7

RICHMOND, Va. – Sam Law, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of about 80 people arrested and charged with unlawful entry for protesting the war in Gaza on his campus in late April.

During the April 29 protest, Law said, citing his arrest affidavit, someone apparently read an order through a loudspeaker to disperse demonstrators, but he did not recall ever hearing such an announcement.

“I was on my own turf and exercising my right to speak out,” he said.

Anti-war protests have rocked American universities, with police clashing with demonstrators and questions being raised about the force used to break up demonstrations and camps.

In late April, officers dressed in riot gear and riding horses broke up demonstrations on the University of Laws campus, arresting dozens of people days before the student himself was arrested.

Students and staff take part in a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, U.S., May 5, 2024. REUTERS/Nuri Vallbona

Students and staff take part in a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, U.S., May 5, 2024. REUTERS/Nuri Vallbona

Many students now fear that their academic and even professional achievements will be limited as they are required to work or return to school in the coming months.

Law and his fellow inmates were acquitted of trespassing charges, but they now face disciplinary action from the university itself.

According to emailed questions seen by Context, in recent weeks students have received messages from university authorities asking them why they did not disperse, whether they acknowledged that their behaviour that day was disruptive and what they would say to a fellow student “whose life or education was negatively affected by their behaviour”.

According to local media, some people now face disciplinary action, such as probation or suspension.

“A lot of people are deeply concerned,” Law said.

Dylan Saba, a lawyer at Palestine Legal, said the advocacy group responded to more than 1,000 requests for help between Oct. 7 — when Hamas-led militants crossed into Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages, according to Israeli figures — and the end of last year.

“Key among them are the disclosure of personal data of people involved in defending Palestinian rights and expressing views on its behalf, disciplinary actions and allegations by universities, as well as issues of discrimination in employment,” he said.

After his image appeared online, Law became the target of doxxing – the malicious publication of personal information.

“I was kind of soft-doxxed when a lot of random right-wing Twitter accounts were just like, ‘This is Sam Law. He’s a graduate student at the University of Texas. Do you support this pro-Hamas graduate student in your department? We need answers.’ That kind of thing,” he said.

At the same time, many Jewish students and faculty faced anti-Semitic abuse and discrimination due to Israel’s ongoing offensive on Gaza.

In response to the Hamas airstrike, Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 38,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities.

“There are students who have told us they are planning to transfer or have transferred from their universities because of anti-Semitism,” said Kenneth Marcus, founder and president of the nonprofit Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a Jewish advocacy group that has filed a series of civil rights complaints against universities since Oct. 7.

“It’s something we’ve heard occasionally over the years, but we’ve heard a lot more about it recently — definitely,” he said. “Jewish students have also been physically attacked, intimidated. Verbally attacked.”

“Individual targeting”

Nationwide protests on college campuses, sparked in part by encampments that began in April at Columbia University and elsewhere, have led to more than 3,000 arrests in recent months.

Even as classes ended and many students headed home for the summer, protests continued. In June, more than a dozen students at Stanford University were arrested after they occupied the president’s office.

Saba said the situation on campuses could be a turning point for the pro-Palestinian movement.

“The disciplinary actions are happening on such a broad scale and in such a public way that I think a lot of people see it as a significant political and cultural moment,” he said.

The University of Texas at Austin confirmed it was sending students disciplinary tickets for breaking rules, but a spokesperson said the university does not impose “professional or academic consequences” for the protests.

“The actions and stated intentions of the participants (on April 24 and 29) stand in stark contrast to no fewer than 13 prior pro-Palestinian free speech events on our campus since October, which have occurred largely without incident,” the university said in a statement.

“The University of Texas at Austin will continue to support the constitutional right to free speech for all individuals on our campus, and will enforce our policies while ensuring due process and holding students, faculty, staff and guests accountable.”

Corey Saylor, director of research and advocacy at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the latest wave of Islamophobia in the context of the protests is different from previous waves.

“It has some features that we haven’t seen before. One is that it’s very clearly doxxing and targeting students, and it’s also very individualized, similar to what happens with employees,” he said.

“And in terms of employees, we saw people go to a pro-Palestinian rally and then two days later they were called to the HR department.”

Marcus of the Brandeis Center acknowledged that participants in pro-Palestinian rallies and events experience professional consequences for their actions.

“But it is also true that some of their actions were unlawful and brutal,” he added.

“It is not uncommon for human resources departments to look out for candidates who have a history of hateful or biased conduct, especially if that history has been established by a court of law or has led to ethical violations assessed by a university judicial body,” he said.

Law, meanwhile, said the way his university handled the situation could make some students think twice about taking part in on-campus protests in the future — though he predicts the movement could continue.

“I never really felt like what I did was wrong. I felt like I was standing up and expressing myself in the middle of genocide in a way that felt effective — and I think it was effective,” he said.

“We got a lot of attention in Austin — that really kicked off something that I think will continue.”

(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile.)