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SUNY New Paltz faculty sign letter condemning arrests of protesters

Ceasefire Now Sign
Jesse King
WAMC file photo

A journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz has authored a letter to the university president and SUNY Chancellor condemning the May 2nd police crackdown on pro-Palestine demonstrators. More than 130 people were arrested.

Lisa Phillips’ letter, co-signed by more than 120 of her colleagues, says the public college’s decision to use police to clear the Parker Quad, which resulted in one hospitalization and a news reporter’s arrest, raises “grave issues of freedom of speech and assembly.”

Local officials have raised similar concerns.

The university says President Darrell Wheeler met with students, community leaders, and faculty members this week and continues to read through emails from the larger campus community.

SUNY New Paltz says a “clear takeaway” has been a “desire and need for more counseling and mental health services.”

The college says it is evaluating a request that students are given amnesty from student code of conduct charges. According to officials, there have been no formal complaints filed with university police or the university. The college notes such complaints would trigger an investigation.

President Wheeler last week called the decision to bring in law enforcement “among the most difficult I have had to make at any point in my career.” The college says Wheeler is committed to dialogue with student protest and governance leaders.

In a statement, SUNY says it is committed to ensuring the safety of its students and campus communities while preserving freedom of expression. 

Phillips spoke with WAMC’s Lucas Willard:

Once I realized that the tents had been dismantled, what I thought was, all these students are doing are peaceably assembling. That is in our Constitution. And it is wrong and awful, that the police were still sent in. And were sent in in the manner that they were sent in. Riot police meant to break up violence. These students were not violent. They're students who had something to say. And they were standing on their own campus in a public space. So, I was shocked. And as the facts and stories came in, I knew I had to speak out and defense of the students right to assemble and their right to speak.

Is there a widespread consensus among your fellow faculty members, that the way the police acted and arrested demonstrators on May 2nd was a bridge too far? Is that, sort of, the general feeling on campus?

You know, I don't ever feel authorized to speak for a general feeling. I can tell you that, in the meetings I've attended, and the conversations that I've had, and the exchanges over the email lists that faculty and staff are on on campus, many people are shocked, appalled, and frankly brokenhearted.

You write in the letter that, “We may not agree with each other on how to respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israel-Hamas war, or the rhetoric that protesters used, but we are clear in our condemnation of the police response as a brutal infringement of First Amendment freedoms.” I feel like a lot of times in the political rhetoric surrounding protests and demonstrations, there's a lot of us versus them. There's a lot of folks taking sides to prove a political point. But you're saying that that's not the case. This isn't about what side the students or the occupiers may have been on, so to speak.

I think that states it well. I mean, I am a person with four generations of family in Israel. I, personally, am uncomfortable with some of the things that the protesters say. But I am a person who will fight for the right to say it.

What is not in this letter, I think is notable. There are no calls for President Wheeler to resign, or for SUNY Chancellor King to take further action. Is there a reason why you chose not to include those demands? Or do you not feel like that was necessary? Do you not support a call for President Wheeler’s resignation, as some have made?

I think that what I did was draft a letter, write a letter, and my colleagues signed it, I wanted to make it a big tent letter. And I wanted to make it about freedom of speech and assembly on our campus. As the days go on, there are additional cries with additional demands from my various colleagues and from students. I think that I, frankly, don't know how I feel about asking President Wheeler to resign. I think an additional concern that I very much do know I share is that the students who were arrested not be punished in a way that interferes with their attendance in coursework. That won't happen this semester, because we're now in finals and their court hearings and so forth are later after finals. But if there's anything that prevents a student from taking summer classes or coming back in the fall, that is something that I personally and I know many of my colleagues are extremely concerned about, and I very much hope that the punishment does not include anything that interferes with their education. They need to be here they need to be learning. I think many of them need the community as well.

Do you think that SUNY New Paltz needs any explicit language, or rules, protections for free speech in a campus setting?

Isn’t our constitution enough?

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.