Read a PDF of our statement here.

Today, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) issued a statement roundly and unequivocally condemning the rising civil and human rights violations against peaceful protesters across the U.S. and issued a letter calling for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct an immediate investigation into the treatment of peaceful protesters and for the Department of Education (DOE) to safeguard students’ constitutional and civil rights and ensure compliance by federally funded institutions with anti-discrimination laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

Recently, thousands of students in colleges and universities across the country have engaged in peaceful, nonviolent protests against the horrific and persisting violence in Gaza where more than 30,000 Palestinian people have been killed. This follows the heinous and abominable October 7, 2023 attack in Israel where more than 1,200 people were killed, over 250 hostages were taken, and 133 people remain imprisoned. Peaceful protest and dissent are central to our democracy as are the laws that govern citizens. The rule of law also requires that law enforcement adhere to the constitution and other applicable federal laws when carrying out their duties. Many of these peaceful campus protests have been met with outsized and abusive responses to students, professors, and allies by armed law enforcement at the request and invitation of university officials.

The arrests of more than 200 protesters this past weekend on college campuses—many of them characterized by alarming misconduct by law enforcement, and the more than 1,600 arrests at 30 campuses in the past month alone, raise serious concerns about the disproportionate response and use of force against student protestors, including many Muslim students, Jewish students, and students of color.

“It is impossible to watch the scenes playing out across the country and not be reminded of the profoundly impactful, nonviolent student activism that has positively shaped the course of our nation—and of history generally—for more than seventy years,” said Janai Nelson, LDF President and Director-Counsel. “For generations, students in colleges and universities have been at the forefront of racial justice, human rights, and anti-war movements to force decision-makers to uphold our constitutional ideals and the principles of humanity in furtherance of building a multiracial democracy in the United States and democratic principles across the globe.”

“We of course respect the right of colleges and universities to maintain a safe campus for all students and staff.  We also unequivocally condemn Islamophobia and antisemitism and do not tolerate calls for violence and physical intimidation of either Arab or Jewish students or any other acts of bias against the Arab, Muslim, or Jewish communities. However, it is imperative that university communities, where the free exchange of ideas is most fostered and cherished, are able to express their opinions freely about matters of public concern. As a civil rights organization, we call upon DOJ and DOE to investigate allegations of law enforcement and university officials abusing the rights of peaceful protesters in their militarized response.”

“Since its inception, LDF has supported the use of peaceful protest as a critical element of democracy and has represented Freedom Riders, students of the 1960s sit-in movement, a conscientious objector, as well as protesters who faced police violence during the 2020 racial justice protests. In 2023, LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute published a research brief, Police and Protests: The Inequity of Police Responses to Racial Justice Protests, showing that, during summer 2020, police were more likely to be violent when responding to racial justice protests as compared to other protests. The findings have specific implications for all who exercise or seek to exercise their constitutionally protected First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights to engage in lawful protest without discriminatory harassment.”

Against this backdrop, we have issued a letter calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the allegations of law enforcement abuses that may violate federal laws. In addition, we call on the Department of Education to use its enforcement authority to safeguard students’ constitutional and civil rights and ensure compliance by federally funded institutions with anti-discrimination laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which strictly prohibits the use of federal funds for discrimination based on race, national origin, or religion.

“The federal government must protect and defend these essential forms of nonviolent expression in our multiracial democracy by fully enforcing our civil rights laws and constitutional mandates.” 


About the Legal Defense Fund: Founded in 1940, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is the nation’s first civil rights law organization. In media attributions, please refer to us as the Legal Defense Fund or LDF. Please note that LDF has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights.