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Students more likely to face arrest on campuses with poor free speech climates

FIRE survey data shows strong correlation between poor speech climate and arrests on campus of pro-Palestinian encampment protesters.
At the University of Texas at Austin on April 29, 2024, police arrest a protester at an encampment where students called attention to the war in Gaza.

Aaron E. Martinez / Austin American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Police arrest a protester at the University of Texas at Austin on April 29, 2024.

FIRE has been actively tracking pro-Palestinian encampments — which have emerged at more than 110 campuses across the country — and any arrests that occur at them. This data, once combined with survey data from our 2024 College Free Speech Rankings, has produced stunning results.

FIRE found that a university’s free speech climate before October 7 strongly indicates whether or not encampment protesters at that school would subsequently be arrested in April and May. Moreover, campuses where arrests have been made at pro-Palestinian encampments had more than three times as many successful deplatforming attempts since 2020, compared to campuses with no encampment-related arrests.

These data, which we dive into below, underscores what FIRE has been saying for years: establishing a robust pro-speech climate on campus may seem difficult — policies and a campus’s climate aren’t always easy to change. But a pro-speech climate provides everyone — students, faculty, administrators — with the tools and understanding needed to navigate politically charged moments.

Campuses with encampments and arrests have poorer free speech climates

What do these data show? There is a strong association between support for illiberal protest, difficulty discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the presence of encampments and encampment-related arrests. 

In the scatterplot below, the X-axis shows how acceptable, on average, students at each college and university consider illiberal forms of protest (i.e., acceptance of students shouting down a speaker, blocking entry to an event, or using violence to stop a campus speaker). The Y-axis plots the percentage of students surveyed at each campus who report difficulty discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Colleges in the top right quadrant are high in both acceptance of illiberal protest and in difficulty discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Colleges in the bottom left quadrant, in contrast, are low on both of these factors. An orange bubble indicates that a college had a pro-Palestinian encampment while a blue bubble indicates that the college did not. The size of the orange circles corresponds to the number of reported encampment-related arrests. 

As the graph makes clear, many campuses with pro-Palestinian encampments and where students have been arrested are in the top right quadrant. For example, the following schools are all represented by an orange dot located in the top right quadrant, and they account for 356 of the more than 2,300 recent student arrests: Barnard College (Columbia University), George Washington University, Tulane University, Emory University, and Yale University. 

Another factor FIRE considers for the College Free Speech Rankings, campus deplatforming attempts, also tracks with where encampments emerged and with where arrests occurred. 

Deplatforming attempts occur when a person or group tries to prevent some form of expression from happening on campus. That expression could be anything from a speech to a film screening or a performance of a play.

FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings assign a penalty to a school if a deplatforming attempt has succeeded in censoring expression or has resulted in an attempt to disrupt an event that is in progress. A bonus is assigned if a school does not deplatform an expressive event and clearly defends free the expression rights of the event organizers and participants. FIRE’s Campus Deplatforming Database includes deplatforming attempts from 1998 to present. However, the College Free Speech Rankings only factor in deplatforming attempts that have occurred at ranked schools since 2020, since that was the first year the rankings were calculated.

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Campuses with pro-Palestinian encampments where students were also arrested averaged approximately three deplatforming attempts since 2020. That’s at least one deplatforming attempt a year — a conservative estimate given that many campuses operated remotely in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic (and given that we’re not even halfway through 2024). In contrast, campuses without encampment-related arrests averaged less than one deplatforming attempt total since 2020. 

Notably, though, this pattern also holds for successful deplatformings. Campuses with pro-Palestinian encampments where arrests have been made had more than three times as many successful deplatforming attempts as campuses with no encampment-related arrests. 

All of this suggests that campuses with encampments and encampment-related arrests have a poorer climate for free speech, given that these are the campuses where deplatforming attempts occur most often (and where they more often end up being successful).

Where do we go from here?

It’s important to note that with these data all inferences are correlational rather than causal. That is, though strong associations have emerged among key data points discussed here, we can’t assume that these patterns reflect definitive causal links. That said, these data reveal interesting and important patterns and associations. In many ways the predictive utility of these data is underscored by how well it appears to track the incidents we’re seeing play out on many college and university campuses, a year after the 2024 survey data were collected. 

Florida State University students attend an FSU Board of Trustees meeting where they waived Palestinian flags and chanted before being escorted out by the police

Were campus tensions around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict high before October 7?


FIRE data shows surprising correlation between campus speech climate and how colleges respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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FIRE has clearly and consistently said that true threats and incitement are unprotected forms of expression, and that violence is never acceptable. As such, colleges and universities must act decisively to defend protected expression and take swift action to punish unprotected misconduct. And even though campus encampments are expressive conduct, as FIRE has recently discussed, campuses can enforce reasonable and content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions on when, where, and how protests can take place on campus.

Institutional leaders who preemptively shut down protected student protests, or respond with disproportionate force or ambiguous and selectively enforced rules, risk chilling the climate for expression on their campus. Unfortunately, given the poor pre-existing climates for speech and expression on many campuses, the chaos in recent weeks perhaps isn’t all that surprising. 

FIRE’s data is a unique and well-positioned tool to help predict, understand, and perhaps address future events on campus. As these data suggest, much of what we’re currently seeing unfold was already simmering in the background at many of these institutions long before protests erupted. 

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