The protester’s polemic

Abbott's violent backlash against student protesters unjustly violates their constitutional rights

Anika Sultana | Mercury Staff


As Gaza solidarity encampments pop up across the U.S., UTD’s own are among those protesting the involvement of their academic institution in what the International Court of Justice has called a “plausible genocide.” As Gov. Greg Abbott pushes for Texas to respond violently to campus protests while suppressing student activism through executive orders, it is the duty of UTD’s administration to protect the constitutional rights of students and the burden of the students to hold their administrators accountable in the face of egregious violations of supposed founding ideals of America. 

Despite the very first amendment to its constitution ensuring the right of people to “peaceably assemble,” throughout history, the U.S. has routinely violated citizens’ right to protest through extreme forms of disproportionate violence meant to squash dissent. When West Virginian coal miners pushed for better working conditions in the 1920s, the U.S. government escalated the conflict by dropping bombs on its citizens. As peaceful civil rights activists demanded equal protection under the law throughout the 1950s and ’60s, they were met with widespread police brutality and lynchings. And most analogous to the current protests, when college students protested for an end to the Vietnam War in 1970 at Kent State University, they were attacked and killed by the National Guard and police officers. Now, students at Columbia, Yale and UT Austin face police violence, arrest and expulsion; hundreds face jail time after direct confrontations with police as some encampments are forcibly shut down — the complete shutdown of entirely peaceful demonstrations.  

A coalition of pro-Palestine groups have called for UTD to “divest from death” by removing its investments from weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon. Students have also demanded that campus administration recognize the suffering of the Palestinian people in addition to official criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza — which nations like South Africa have called an “extreme form of apartheid.” So far, administration has ignored demands for divestment, a call for a cease-fire and recognition of the particular suffering affecting Palestinians and has refused to acknowledge official resolutions passed by Student Government. UTD cannot claim to support free speech in campus policy if it decides to call in police to unjustly suppress students’ protests. It must resist the pressure from aggressive morally bankrupt leaders like Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and Abbott.   

The solidarity protests developing across the nation draw on a strong legal history, which protects these types of political demonstrations. Over the decades, the Supreme Court has established standards about what is and is not protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment — and attempts to infringe on these rights are constitutional violations. Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) established that “students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate” by specifically protecting symbolic acts of speech — the wearing of black armbands — as a means to protest the Vietnam War. Cohen v. California (1971) protects the right of people to use certain words and phrases considered offensive when expressing a political message, specifically protecting an individual protesting the Vietnam War by openly wearing a jacket that said “Fuck the Draft.” And Texas v. Johnson (1989) protects one’s ability to engage in symbolic speech such as burning the American flag to protest the Reagan administration’s policies. These key cases, which still stand as good law and set the precedent for current constitutional interpretation, indicate that UT Austin’s actions in response to the nationwide encampments are abhorrent violations of the free and peaceful expression the student activists are engaging in. Students should not be arrested for engaging in peaceful political expression, and yet hundreds across the nation — including 57 at UT Austin — have been arrested, and while charges for some have already been dropped, all those detained now have the arrest on their background until they go through the expensive process of having a court expunge their records.  

Currently, UTD has managed not to infringe on the constitutional rights of students, with events such as walkouts, Chalk the Block, poetry nights, and now the most recent sit-in within the Administration Building occurring without police brutalizing students. These events, while disruptive, are all lawful; Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) set the standard that prohibiting demonstrations and speech can only happen if it would cause “imminent lawless action.” Peaceful protests, symbolic art and poetry are all constitutionally protected, while falling within the limits outlined by the Court, regardless of their goal and whether you personally agree with that message. This is echoed within UTD’s own policy, SP5001 §B.7, which states that making an argument about politics, religion, ideology or academic ideas is not harassment “even if some listeners are offended by the argument or idea.” 

While UT Austin’s policy Sec.13-204 provides the same protections present in the UTD policy, their policy did nothing to stop university administration from calling in troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety to violently end the peaceful protest — a protest whose itinerary included abominable criminal acts like studying, a pizza break and art workshops. Over 50 individuals were arrested as Texas brutally ended the walkout Wednesday. Students weren’t the only target of DPS troopers’ assault which beat protesters into submission, as a Fox 7 reporter covering the walkout was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing — the main charge UT Austin pursued before Travis County dropped all 57 charges because of their complete lack of standing. There is nothing stopping UTD from following in Austin’s footsteps, except for student pressure on administration to ensure they remain accountable. 

Even after 54 years, the killing and arrest of student activists, which occurred during the Kent State massacre, continues to live within the American consciousness, and this week has seen an unacceptable upsurge in similarly violent action taken against peaceful demonstrators who simply want their schools, to which they pay thousands of dollars in tuition, to stop supporting a “plausible genocide.” If even the International Court of Justice and the United Nations — incredibly slow-moving organizations that normally struggle to acknowledge issues — are willing to recognize the crisis as a “plausible genocide,” then you know Israel is doing something atrocious to the Palestinian people as it continues to occupy Gaza.  

This academic year has already seen UTD administration remove the Spirit Rocks and end OCRS, threatening students’ free expression and safety — students should continue working together en masse, by organizing protests and emailing Benson about their issue with how other campuses have handled protests, to ensure their fundamental rights to demonstrate are not trampled on as well, should UTD follow in the footsteps of campuses around the country. The UTD administration must ensure students can continue safely engaging in their constitutionally guaranteed right to assembly. So listen up administrators: the nation — and Comets — are intently watching what happens next.  


  • Poignant, powerful and well-articulated. An important piece in these historic times. We’re watching you, UTD.

  • What an abhorrent misquoting of the icj case. They did not say it was a “plausible genocide” they said the case brought against israel by south africa has plausible standing at that at least some of the things south africa is concern3d about are plausible, not specifically genocide. From the document:

    ” In the Court’s view, the facts and circumstances mentioned above are sufficient to conclude that at least some of the rights claimed by South Africa and for which it is seeking protection are plausible. This is the case with respect to the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide and related prohibited acts identified in Article III, and the right of South Africa to seek Israel’s compliance with the latter’s obligations under the Convention. The Court then turns to the condition of the link between the plausible rights claimed by South Africa and the provisional measures requested.”

    Edit: Plausibility in this case does NOT refer to the plausibility of whether a genodice is occuring or not. Quotes of Joan Donoghue, ex president of the ICJ:

    “The court decided that the Palestinians had a plausible right to be protected from genocide and that South Africa had the right to present that claim in the court,” Donoghue said.

    “It then looked at the facts as well. But it did not decide – and this is something where I’m correcting what’s often said in the media – it didn’t decide that the claim of genocide was plausible.”

    “It did emphasise in the order that there was a risk of irreparable harm to the Palestinian right to be protected from genocide,” she continued.

    “But the shorthand that often appears, which is that there’s a plausible case of genocide, isn’t what the court decided.”


    • It is so interesting that the article cites the International Court of Justice for its assertion while you instead cite the Jewish Chronicle, a Br*tish publication which has faced strict criticism across the broad range of the political spectrum for the active harm it has done towards the fight against issues like antisemitism(1) and islamophobia(2) while diligently working to conflate(3) any criticism of the zionist entity of Israel as antisemitic.

      But the veracity of JC is besides the point when the issue in question you bring up is the supposed abhorrent misquoting of the ICJ’s(4) ruling, so why don’t we look at some of the actual text from the ruling itself.

      “The Court notes that the provisions of the Convention are intended to protect the members of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group from acts of genocide or any other punishable acts enumerated in Article III. It considers that there is a correlation between the rights of members of groups protected under the Genocide Convention, the obligations incumbent on States parties thereto, and the right of any State party to seek compliance therewith by another State party. In the Court’s view, the Palestinians appear to constitute a distinct “national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, and hence a protected group within the meaning of Article II of the Genocide Convention.”

      This excerpt from the court establishes that the Palestinian people are considered a protected group under the Genocide Convetion(5). The Genocide Convention establishes that genocide, regardless of whether it occurs during a time of peace or war, is unacceptable.

      “The Court observes that the military operation being conducted by Israel following the attack of 7 October 2023 has resulted in a large number of deaths and injuries, as well as the massive destruction of homes, the forcible displacement of the vast majority of the population, and extensive damage to civilian infrastructure. While figures relating to the Gaza Strip cannot be independently verified, recent information indicates that 25,700 Palestinians have been killed, over 63,000 injuries have been reported, over 360,000 housing units have been destroyed or partially damaged and approximately 1.7 million persons have been internally displaced. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been deprived access to water, food, fuel, electricity and other essentials of life, as well as to medical care and medical supplies.”

      This excerpt from the court establishes the information the court is working with in regards to the atrocities which have been committed by the IDF at the time of the ruling.

      “ In the Court’s view, the facts and circumstances mentioned above are sufficient to conclude that at least some of the rights claimed by South Africa and for which it is seeking protection are plausible. This is the case with respect to the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide and related prohibited acts identified in Article III, and the right of South Africa to seek Israel’s compliance with the latter’s obligations under the Convention.”

      This excerpt is a major part of the ICJ’s ruling in which it explicitly states that the Palestinian people have a plausible right to be protected from acts of genocide, as you accurately note this statement refers to the plausible rights, but plausible rights to what? The thing the Genocide Convention protects against is not only in the name of this international agreement, but it is also explicitly stated throughout the text of the convention. For there to be a plausible reason to endow someone with rights against being genocided, there must be a plausible genocide occurring. Otherwise, the court is simply stating an empty tautology, which the UN’s consistent push for a ceasefire and an end to violence enacted by Israel despite constant US vetoes indicates that the ICJ’s parent organization does not see this ruling as a mere platitude.

      “ The Court considers that, by their very nature, at least some of the provisional measures sought by South Africa are aimed at preserving the plausible rights it asserts on the basis of the Genocide Convention in the present case, namely the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide and related prohibited acts mentioned in Article III, and the right of South Africa to seek Israel’s compliance with the latter’s obligations under the Convention. Therefore, a link exists between the rights claimed by South Africa that the Court has found to be plausible, and at least some of the provisional measures requested.”

      This excerpt discusses the link between the rights South Africa is pushing for and South Africa’s right to obligate Israel to comply with the Genocide Convention, which would entail it no longer doing a genocide. For the court to recognize the plausible veracity of the rights of the Palestinian people to not be genocided and for South Africa to have the plausible right to to make Israel comply with the Genocide Convention, the court is recognizing that clearly something is going on. That something of course being a plausible genocide. The court emphasizes the plausibility of the genocide because this is still an ongoing investigation. A determination from the court itself as to whether Israel is committing a genocide won’t come out until litigation ends on this issue, but this preliminary ruling indicates that the court recognizes a plausible genocide.

      I would love to know what your interpretation of this is because I simply don’t see how the ICJ could recognize a plausible right against being genocided and a plausible right for a UN member state to make another member state comply with the Genocide Convention, without there also being a plausible genocide for the court to recognize. If there is no plausible genocide, then why would the court acknowledge these rights?


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