NYCLU sues Columbia over suspension of pro-Palestinian student groups amid Gaza protests

NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday had filed a lawsuit over demands that Columbia University reinstate two suspended pro-Palestinian student groups.

The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, alleges that Columbia violated its policies by punishing the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace for protests over the Israel-Hamas war. While private colleges are not bound by the right to free speech, state courts have established that disciplinary action must follow their own rules and guidelines, according to the NYCLU.

“Students protesting at private colleges still have the right to fair, equal treatment — and we are ready to fight that battle in court,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said in a statement.

Last semester, university officials suspended the two student groups, citing repeated violations of campus event policy in the lead-up to a Nov. 9 protest, which included “threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” NYCLU denied the accusations and said the demonstration was sponsored by a coalition of more than 20 groups.

The next day, Columbia “singled out” the two organizations and suspended them, with no opportunity to respond to the charges, according to court documents.

The civil liberties group alleges that action broke with procedure established after 1968 campus protests over the Vietnam War and Columbia’s plans for a gym that would displace mostly Black residents, landing the moniker “Gym Crow.”

Those policies were “unilaterally amended” this school year as protests over Israel’s military counteroffensive in Gaza roiled the Morningside Heights campus, according to the NYCLU. The plaintiffs, including two current students, allege that university officials later conceded that “things last semester had happened outside of the normal protocol.”

The suspension, which means the two groups cannot use university spaces or receive funding, was scheduled through the fall term. To be reinstated, they had to comply with policy and meet with administrators. A spokesman for Columbia declined to comment on pending litigation.

“We are committed to free and open debate, and the principle that the right to speak applies equally to everyone, regardless of their viewpoint,” the school policy says. “They also have a corresponding responsibility not to interfere with the rights of others.”

On Monday, Columbia President Minouche Shafik was called to testify in mid-April as part of a House probe and faces a federal lawsuit over alleged campus antisemitism. The NYPD is also investigating reports that pro-Palestinian students were sprayed with a chemical on campus.