Today, April 19, 2024, The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute issued the following statement:

The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (HRI) stands with students exercising their fundamental human rights, and calls on Columbia University to protect the rights to expression, peaceful assembly, association, and the right to engage in advocacy for human rights. Columbia University’s decision to use police force to disperse a nonviolent student protest and encampment raises serious concerns about the University’s respect for human rights and its commitment to free expression.

HRI works alongside advocates around the world, from the US, to Yemen, Honduras, Syria, Thailand, and the Central African Republic to promote social justice, fundamental rights, peace, and the protection of civic space. We support and advocate for the rights of human rights defenders. 

On our own campus this week, administrators called in police to arrest students just one day after they set up a peaceful encampment advocating for Palestinian human rights. The University claimed that the protest posed “a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University.” However, available information currently indicates that the protest was nonviolent, and HRI staff witnessed the protest on April 17 and 18 and observed no conditions presenting a danger to the Columbia community or disrupting its substantial functioning. The New York Police Department (NYPD) said that protesters were “peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.”

The NYPD arrested at least 108 Columbia students, including two legal observers. The ACLU of New York denounced Columbia’s decision to bring in the police so quickly, noting that it “risked the well-being of students, because the NYPD deployed its Strategic Response Group, a unit that has a history of escalation and violence.” Columbia has also suspended all students participating in the encampment.

The rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association are bedrocks of international human rights law. As the UN Human Rights Committee details, the right to peaceful assembly “constitutes the very foundation of a system of participatory governance based on democracy, human rights, the rule of law and pluralism.” Further, human rights defenders are fundamental to society and their rights are protected under international law. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides that everyone has the right to promote rights and freedoms, including by joining groups and peaceful assemblies, and disseminating and discussing views and information.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression has explained, “academic institutions … should also adopt and enforce policies that ensure the protection of the free expression rights of the members of their communities, resisting official or social pressure and promising human rights compliance institutionally.” 

Columbia has a rich history of protest activism, including against the Vietnam War,  apartheid in South Africa, and sexual assault on campus, as well as for climate justice and Black Lives Matter. But yesterday's arrests follow a spate of deeply troubling action taken at Columbia to suppress speech across campus in support of Palestinian human rights. 

As a home for human rights on campus, HRI is firmly committed to building a human rights respecting campus that is safe for student activism and free of all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and sexism. HRI calls on Columbia University to explain its decision to call in the NYPD, and to protect and respect students’ rights to peaceful assembly, association, and expression, including by allowing students to peacefully congregate across campus. HRI also calls on Columbia to stop requesting the use of police force to suppress peaceful protests and to rescind all undue punitive measures against students for the legitimate exercise of their fundamental rights. 


The Human Rights Institute advances international human rights through education, advocacy, fact-finding, research, scholarship, and critical reflection. We work in partnership with advocates, communities, and organizations pushing for social change to develop and strengthen the human rights legal framework and mechanisms, promote justice and accountability for human rights violations, and build and amplify collective power.