Stony Brook University students protested Wednesday in support of Palestine, following a protest last week on campus that led to several arrests. NewsdayTV’s Steve Langford reports. Credit: Anthony Florio; Zubair Kabir

Controversy has erupted over the recent arrest of nine people at a pro-Palestinian rally at Stony Brook University, with numerous staff and students' names added to a letter criticizing the arrests as "criminalizing" protest, while school officials say the people were being disruptive.

The arrests by university police occurred during a March 26 rally that included a march through campus followed by a demonstration in the administration building in support of Palestinians and calling for the divestment of Israel.

The university has seen numerous protests since Hamas attacked Israel Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking hostages, which was followed by Israeli attacks that Hamas officials say have killed roughly 33,000 Palestinians over the past six months. 

These were the first arrests associated with the protests at Stony Brook and include seven students, one alumnus and one nonstudent charged with disorderly conduct, school officials said. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Controversy has erupted over the recent arrest of nine people at a pro-Palestinian rally at Stony Brook University.
  • An electronic letter bearing the names of numerous staff and students criticized the arrests as "criminalizing" protest, while school officials say those arrested were being disruptive.
  • The university, and others across the nation, have seen numerous protests since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

"They proceeded to disrupt university activities inside the building through the use of a bullhorn, a drum, and loud chants," said an email to the campus community that day from Rick Gatteau, vice president for student affairs.

Gatteau said school officials had advised the protesters several times that they were violating campus policies and had to leave, and while the majority of about 30 people did, nine stayed and were arrested.

In the past, Stony Brook's campus police have worked closely with rally organizers, mapping out a route for protesters and placing numerous police officers along the way. The group deviated from the route March 26 and entered the administration building, Gatteau said.

On Tuesday, Robert T. Chase, an associate professor of history and Africana studies, shared with Newsday the "open" electronic letter, which included the names of more than 450 faculty, staff, students, alumni and others, criticizing the arrests.

"The use of campus police to arrest students for holding a sit-in and the administration's intolerance to peaceful protest threaten the free exchange of ideas and will have a chilling effect on the intellectual atmosphere of this university," the letter read. 

The letter said the protesters had sat quietly in a common hallway of the administrative building.

"As faculty, students, staff and community members, we are concerned that the university responded to a sit-in with arrests, which is tantamount to criminalizing free speech and peaceful protest," the letter said.

Stony Brook is among numerous college campuses around the country roiled by protests in support of Palestinians, some ending in arrests.

In October, 56 students and one employee were arrested for trespassing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In November, seven protesters were arrested at Brandeis University in Massachusetts after officials said their rally "devolved into an invocation of hate speech." Also that month, 40 people were arrested at the University of Michigan after they forcefully gained entrance to a locked administration building that houses the president's office. 

The Stony Brook campus saw another pro-Palestinian protest Wednesday, when nearly 100 people peacefully protested with hardly any visible police presence. 

Zach Greenberg, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said public universities such as Stony Brook are bound to follow the First Amendment's protections of individual rights and expression. That covers protesters' right to rally in open, outdoor areas, said Greenberg, whose organization is based in Philadelphia.

"When protesters go inside a building, especially if they use drums and a bullhorn, that can be very disruptive," he said, and "the university can address that disruption by ending the protest."

Greenberg said the Israel-Palestine issue has become one of the most heated controversies on campuses in recent memory.

"It encompasses race, ethnicity, religion and politics," he said. 

Stony Brook officials said in a statement Wednesday the school values the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. 

"While we regret this outcome, it is our responsibility to protect the university from disruption and to hold students accountable for behavior that impacts the safety, security and operations of the university."

The letter protesting the arrests calls for the charges to be dropped, a public accounting of the policy and decision-making regarding the arrests, and the removal of campus police from peaceful events and demonstrations.

With Steve Langford

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