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University Hall houses Harvard College's administrative offices.
University Hall houses Harvard College's administrative offices. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By S. Mac Healey, Crimson Staff Writer

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts challenged Harvard’s decision to suspend the Palestine Solidarity Committee in a Wednesday letter to Harvard University interim General Counsel Eileen Finan.

Writing on behalf of the PSC, the civil liberties organization claimed that Harvard’s probation and suspension of the PSC “fall short” of the University’s duty to “affirm, assure and protect the rights of its members to organize and join political associations.”

“We believe that Harvard’s imposition of probation on the PSC constitutes a breach of contract, violates Harvard’s duty to provide basic fairness in disciplinary proceedings, and may otherwise be unlawful because of its negative impact on free speech and associational rights,” they wrote.

The letter called for Harvard to remove the probation and suspension of the PSC, lift the freeze on recognizing new student groups, and clarify policies for student organizations. It left open the question of subsequent legal action by the PSC.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment.

The letter comes as pro-Palestine student activists have set up encampments at college campuses nationwide, leading to arrests at Columbia University, Yale University, and New York University.

Though the University shut down Harvard Yard to outside visitors on Sunday in an attempt to prevent similar demonstrations, protesters began an encampment in Harvard Yard on Wednesday.

The ACLUM detailed an ongoing dispute between the Dean of Students’ Office and the PSC since February, alleging that “Harvard failed to meet its ‘duty to provide basic fairness.’”

They wrote that disciplinary action is unfair when Harvard has “not provided students with adequate notice as to what behavior constitutes violation of the policy.”

The DSO has repeatedly warned the PSC that they have acted in violation of policies which require appropriate notice for events and which ban co-sponsorship with unrecognized student groups. The PSC claims that the DSO has unequally applied their policies based on public pressure, and that the DSO has not provided necessary policy clarification to the group.

The letter claims that Andrew Donohue, the assistant dean of student engagement and leadership in the DSO, notified the PSC in February that they were in violation of the Student Organization Resource Guide for using their social media account to amplify protests held by unrecognized student groups, which have been at the center of pro-Palestine activism in recent months.

Donohue again told the PSC they had violated policy on March 1 by promoting a vigil at which protestors later accused the University of surveilling students in attendance. When the PSC contested the co-sponsorship characterization, the DSO “conceded by email” that they had not co-sponsored the event.

According to the letter, on March 6, 2024, the DSO notified the PSC that they were “placed on probation, retroactive from March 1, 2024.” The probation came after the DSO alerted the PSC of an ongoing investigation into a February 12 Instagram post with details about a die-in protest.

The DSO had determined that the February 12 post had violated the co-sponsorship guidelines when the PSC referred to the die-in as “our” event, “even though the post image did not feature the PSC’s logo and the PSC was not listed as a co-sponsor.

The letter described the DSO’s retroactive probation of the PSC as “fundamentally unfair and chilling to both speech and rights of association.”

The ACLUM letter argued that University policies such as the SORG “are treated as contracts between students and universities” and that Harvard’s actions “gives rise to a breach of contract claim.”

The letter further argues that, while First Amendment protections do not apply to Harvard, “relevant provisions of our state constitution very well may.” The letter cites Article 16 and 19 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which prohibits restrictions on free speech and protects the rights to assembly and association, respectively.

In their analysis, the ACLUM wrote that there is “substantial ambiguity as to whether the SORG’s events policies govern protests and demonstrations.”

The ACLUM claimed that the SORG’s policy requiring four weeks of notice before an outdoor event “would unreasonably chill timely political speech” if applied to protests and demonstrations.

“Indeed, we understand that the College practice has been not to require student organizations (including the PSC) to register protests four weeks in advance, at least in recent memory,” they added.

In their March 6 email notifying the PSC of their probation, the DSO made a distinction between registration timelines for “protests and demonstrations” which require 2 days notice, and “events” which require 4 weeks.

The letter critiqued the DSO’s inconsistent characterization of protests as “events” under this provision, but their regular characterization of protests as “events” when determining violations of co-sponsorship rules.

On the co-sponsorship policy, the ACLUM claimed that “Harvard has repeatedly offered the PSC vague and often inconsistent interpretations” and “it has refused to commit a clear interpretation of the policy to writing, despite repeated requests from the PSC.”

“This is simply unfair,” they added.

—Staff writer S. Mac Healey can be reached at Follow him on X @MacHealey.

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