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Politics: Protesters, Colleges Are About To Find Out That, Yes,

POLITICS: Protesters, colleges are about to find out that, yes, the law DOES apply to them, too

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The campus protests may be winding down, but don’t worry — now the really expensive and destructive phase begins: the litigation.

This warms my heart. But then, as a law professor, I’m basically in the business of selling law degrees.

The campus protesters, and to some degree the universities where they protested, seem to have thought that the law didn’t apply to their actions. 

They’re likely to discover that they were wrong.

The union representing Columbia’s custodians is planning to sue over the university’s indifference and negligence regarding the safety of its members, who were trapped and made captives in the student seizure of Hamilton Hall. 

Transport Workers Union boss John Samuelsen told Fox News, “They stormed in . . . but two of the custodians had to fight their way out.

“They were explicitly told ‘You’re staying here, you’re not going anywhere, this cause is bigger than you.’ ”

Samuelsen described the mob as “smarmy, sort of entitled, spoiled, bratty occupiers,” who treated the blue-collar workers with contempt and tried to keep them from going home to their families. 

Said Samuelsen, “Columbia showed an epic disregard and epically failed to protect the workforce.”

The union may be planning to sue the protesters, too, as it is working to gather security camera footage and the names of students arrested during the campus riots. 

 And that may be just the beginning.

George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, who pioneered the class action litigation against tobacco companies, predicts that there will be more lawsuits against the protesters and their backers. 

Antisemitism controversy at Columbia University: Key events

  • More than 280 anti-Israel demonstrators were cuffed at Columbia and the City of New York campuses overnight in a “massive” NYPD operation.
  • One hundred and nine people were nabbed at the Ivy League campus after cops responded to Columbia’s request to help oust a destructive mob that had illegally taken over the Hamilton Hall academic building late Tuesday, NYC Mayor Eric Adams and police said.
  • Hizzoner blamed the on-campus chaos on insurgents who have a “history of escalating situations and trying to create chaos” instead of protesting peacefully.
  • Columbia’s embattled president Minouche Shafik, who has faced mounting calls to resign for not cracking down sooner, issued a statement Wednesday saying the on-campus violence had “pushed the university to the brink.”
  • Columbia University president Minouche Shafik was accused of “gross negligence” while testifying before Congress. Shafik refused to say if the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is antisemitic.
  • More than 100 Columbia professors signed a letter defending students who support the “military action” by Hamas.

If DAs won’t prosecute, victims can sue for false imprisonment

Such class-action lawsuits could be brought for familiar torts (civil-damage actions), such as assault and battery, false imprisonment and tortious interference with existing contractual advantage, as well as less familiar ones such civil conspiracy and prime facie tort, Banzhaf comments.

These victims include not only students and faculty on campus, but people who were trapped in their cars by road-blocking protests, causing them to miss things like flights, or work, or medical appointments. 

It only takes one such person to launch a class-action suit on behalf of others affected.

Banzhaf notes that the protesters aren’t afraid of arrest, since friendly district attorneys like Manhattan’s Alvin Bragg generally follow a catch-and-release policy. 

But lawsuits can go on for years, wrecking credit ratings, hurting employment prospects and producing endless legal fees.

I’ve wondered for a while why these actions haven’t happened more often, but I think things might be about to change. 

I note that some of the civil-rights statutes that are implicated provide for generous attorneys’ fees, potentially attracting plaintiffs’ lawyers.

It’s not just the protesters who are at risk; their deep-pocket backers may also be implicated.

And for even deeper pockets, the universities are at risk too. 

Columbia law professor Joshua Mitts says Columbia violated the civil rights of Jewish students by fostering and tolerating a hostile education environment on campus.

The sort of “severe and pervasive harassment” experienced by Jewish students who were told to “go back to Europe” is forbidden by federal civil-rights laws, and universities are required to take steps to prevent it, which Columbia clearly didn’t do. 

Columbia could lose federal funding if found liable here, and although it’s a “private” university, it’s heavily dependent on federal money for research, student loans and financial aid.

Nor is it just Columbia. While the events were worse there — and as far as I know, no custodians were taken prisoner anywhere else — Jewish students and faculty, and others, suffered similar severe and pervasive harassment, as well as threats of violence, and sometimes actual attacks, on other campuses like Harvard, Yale and Penn, as well as places like UCLA, Berkeley and NYU.

Those universities will likely face civil-rights lawsuits as well, as will protesters at those schools (of whom there were a lot) who stepped over the line of peaceful protest.  

This could be a sort of full-employment act for civil-rights lawyers.

Some would call this overkill and argue that idealistic protesters shouldn’t face litigation for too much enthusiasm.

But calling for Jews to be killed or deported hardly counts as “idealistic,” and I have no doubt that a group of KKK members telling black students to “go back to Africa” while smashing into campus buildings would garner no such sympathy. 

(Nor would the universities have been so slow to react.)

As Wilford Brimley’s character says in the movie “Absence of Malice,”: “Wonderful thing, subpoenas.”

There are likely to be a lot of them flying on campus. 

We’ll probably learn a lot.  And so will the people behind the protests.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the blog.

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