Vanderbilt University protests

March 2024
Vanderbilt University (Private college or university)
Nashville, TN

Additional Information

  • Incident Nature:
    Rally or protest
  • Incident Political Orientation:
    Left wing
  • Incident Responses:
    Student sanctioned
    Rally or Protests
  • Incident Status:
    No litigation
  • Was Speech Code incident


The Vanderbilt Divest Coalition (VDC), a conglomerate representing nearly 1,000 students and 18 student organizations, submitted a proposed amendment to the Vanderbilt Student Government (VSG) constitution that was scheduled to go to a vote on March 25. If passed, the proposed amendment would prohibit VSG funds from flowing to companies that the international BDS movement has labeled as “complicit” in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and violations of Palestinian rights. The amendment would not affect the funding distributed to pro-Israel groups on campus, but it would preclude them from using funds at BDS’s target companies. Vanderbilt’s Jewish community released a statement that noted that the amendment would “delegitimize, demonize and hold Israel to double standards” and that the BDS movement “socially ostraciz[es] Jews and Zionists from the rest of campus.”

During spring break, however, university administrators removed the proposed amendment from the ballot, stating that it “did not move forward because of potential conflict with federal and state laws.” In particular, Tennessee Senate Bill 1993 prohibits state contracts with nonprofits who engage in boycotts of Israel. In response, a sophomore VDC organizer claimed that “our referendum…is fully legal under both federal and state law. What is illegal on this campus is how administration is treating students.” VDC claims that even though the University may hold state contracts, VSG does not.

In response, a university spokesperson stated that, under both “federal and state law, boycotts by United States organizations of countries friendly to the U.S. can result in fines, penalties or disbarment from contractor status.” Accordingly, “any action by the VSG, or any other registered student organization, to preclude expenditures of university funds on the BDS Movement’s consumer and organic boycott targets could run counter to these laws, expose the university to potential fines and other risks and therefore cannot be the subject of an amendment to the VSG constitution or statutes.”

The University’s response was, predictably, less than satisfying to the students. On March 26th, twenty-seven students descended upon Kirkland Hall, the University’s main administrative building, and forcibly entered to conduct a sit-in protest. In doing so, some of the students physically assaulted a community service officer (CSO) and pushed a staff member who offered to meet with them. The University stated that they took a “graduated approach to de-escalating the situation.” Staff initially asked students to leave and, when that proved unsuccessful, began telling the students that their actions violated university policy and that they would be subject to disciplinary action. After several hours, staff began issuing interim suspensions. Eventually, all students left voluntarily, and the sit-in protest ended at 9 A.M. on March 27th.

Due to their actions, three students were charged with Class A misdemeanors for pushing the CSO and the other staff member. A fourth student was charged with vandalism for breaking a window in Kirkland Hall’s exterior. In total, three students were expelled, one suspended, and twenty-two were placed on disciplinary probation. In addition, a reporter was detained after making repeated attempts to enter the building when he was asked to leave. The reporter was then later released and did not face any charges.

The University’s response set off a flurry of criticism. Over 125 faculty members signed a letter decrying the University’s actions, stating that the Vanderbilt faculty is “deeply troubled by the suppression of student activism and speech on campus.” The faculty demand that the University “repeal all suspensions and criminal charges against the students and immediately reinstate their access campus housing, meal plans, healthcare, and educational activities.” VDC has also continued camping outside Kirkland Hall in tents as protest.

In a March 28 statement, Vanderbilt maintains that they are committed to free expression and openness but, as a private entity, they have “the right to set safety, security, and privacy policies and guidelines around access to private property and buildings on our campus and to remove individuals who attempt to violate those policies.”  The University has asked noted Nashville attorney Aubrey B. Harwell, Jr., co-founder of Neal & Harwell, PLC, to review its response to the incident and “consider how Vanderbilt can best balance its commitment to free expression with its need to maintain safety, privacy and operations of the campus community.” The review is expected to be complete in late spring, and the University has stated that the findings will be made public.