Amid arrests and chaos, Columbia's student radio station stayed on air. America listened. (2024)

NEW YORK ‒ As New York police officers stormed the campus of Columbia University earlier this week and arrested dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters, many onlookers from around the country were glued not to their TVs or social media, but to a student-run radio station.

The WKCR-FM website crashed Tuesday as people tried tuning into its live broadcast to hear a team of student journalists recount police movements throughout the night and the moment officers began clearing the area around the occupied Hamilton Hall. They also told of a tense standoff where NYPD threatened to arrest the reporters themselves.

“This is a harrowing moment in many of our college careers,” Teddy Wyche, the student life director at the station, said on air.

As some of the most knowledgeable sources of news about their own campus, some student journalists of WKCR worked 18-hour days after the first tents went up at Columbia’s encampment about two weeks ago.

Context:Alumni pressure and a crime-fighting mayor helped set the stage for Columbia arrests

Across the U.S. from California to Florida, concerned listeners tuned in Tuesday night to the broadcast. The draw: student journalists with a deep understanding of their campus reporting with an unobstructed view of the scene that mainstream reporters could not access, listeners told USA TODAY.

“My wife and I were glued to it, we were really quite worried about what the outcome was going to be,” Columbia University alumnus Stuart Strickland said.

The broadcast was chaotic at times, as student reporters interrupted each other to deliver the latest updates of police action and statements from embroiled university President Minouche Shafik.

As the night wore on, the police presence on campus increasingly impacted the broadcast. Student journalists – like other students – had their movements on campus restricted, impacting their ability to gather the news.

Some reported being threatened with arrest. Buildings were sealed off, leaving broadcasters stuck in place. And officers at times forced journalists into buildings away from where police were working.

"The police were saying if you don't go inside the building, you'll be arrested" WKCR station manager Ted Schmiedeler told USA TODAY. But "going inside would prevent (the journalists) from seeing what was happening." Schmiedeler said he was awake for more than 40 hours straight between April 29-30 as the station reported on the protests.

Despite the tense moments, no WKCR journalists were arrested. Their work even got a nod from the Pulitzer Prize board: "In the spirit of press freedom, these students worked to document a major national news event under difficult and dangerous circ*mstances and at risk of arrest."

The radio kept broadcasting. America kept listening.

Many listeners outside New York learned about the WKCR live stream on the social media platform X.

“It meant so much,” said Imani Mosley, who graduated from Columbia University in 2013 with a master’s degree in musicology. “Hearing it in their own words was really important ‒ that’s definitely different from how the mainstream media was reporting on things.”

Strickland said he appreciated how student journalists gave live updates that relied on things they could personally confirm, while many major media outlets struggled to get first-hand information.

“The picture I got of students, from students, was much closer to my experience of Columbia than the coverage from the outside world,” said Strickland, 61, who listened from his home in Berkeley, California.

Protests explained:How Columbia University became the epicenter of disagreement over the Israel-Hamas war

While he was listening attentively to WKCR, Strickland said he had his TV on mute in the background, because he only wanted to hear the radio updates, which he said were more current.

Similarly, Karen Leader said she found the station’s livestream amid a barrage of other outlets on X, and immediately trusted it as a reliable source of news based on campus.

“I just felt incredibly grateful and glad to have found them,” said Leader, 64, an NYU alumna who listened from Boca Raton, Florida.

Students on air noted several times throughout the night that their website was experiencing a surge of visitors and kept crashing, and pointed people to other ways to tune in.

Amid arrests and chaos, Columbia's student radio station stayed on air. America listened. (1)

Student reporters say they were threatened with arrest

The students reporting that night said as the hours wore on, their movements grew more restricted by police. They were forced away from Hamilton Hall, where police focused most of their efforts, and the students reported facing threats of arrest themselves.

“Frankly, no one here is left to document whatever might go down at Hamilton Hall, as we are now being told to leave the premises,” reporter David Gonzalez said.

It was in the school's famed Pulitzer Hall that some of the journalists said they found themselves trapped during the 10 o’clock hour, unable to leave to go report because, they said, police officers threatened them with arrest should they come out of the building.

“A police officer poked his head in and told us that if we go outside again we’re going to get arrested,” journalist Ian Pumphrey, who was part of a group of six WKCR reporters stuck in Pulitzer Hall, told USA TODAY.

Protest news:Pro-Palestinian protests reach some high schools amid widespread college demonstrations

“They even told Dean Cobb as well, that if he went outside he’d be arrested,” Pumphrey said, referring to Columbia University Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb, who Pumphrey said was in Pulitzer Hall along with journalism graduate students.

Cobb didn't immediately respond to an email request from USA TODAY.

“I was the one outside … being pushed into the journalism building,” reporter Leon Zhou said on air.

“The police basically said, ‘You have to go back,’ and werethreatening to arrest even the dean himself. So with all that said, we are I think we are sort of trapped here at least in the J-School building... for the time being,” Zhou said.

Amid arrests and chaos, Columbia's student radio station stayed on air. America listened. (2)

At around midnight, audiences listened with relief when the station announced all of its reporters made it back to the station safely, Mosley said.

“It was a lot of emotions,” said Mosley, 40, who listened in Gainesville, Florida. “Pride, being so amazed at how they were navigating this situation, and sadness they had to be in that situation in the first place.”

NYPD did not answer questions about why student journalists’ movements were restricted, but pointed USA TODAY to a news conference in which Kaz Daughtry, deputy commissioner of operations for NYPD, told reporters that when officers cleared encampments at New York University the “press kind of got in the way of our operation” while officers were making arrests.

Freedom of the press on university campusesexplained

While covering protests is always chaotic and comes with risks, experts say student journalists being threatened with arrest is unusual and concerning. Attempts to stop them from doing their jobs harm the public's ability to stay informed, experts said.

"Journalists – including student journalists who have been thrust into a national spotlight to cover stories in their communities – must be allowed to cover campus protests without fearing for their safety," said Katherine Jacobsen with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Columbia University, like many of the universities seeing mass protests, is a private institution, meaning school officials aren’t required to apply First Amendment rights. That includes the freedom of the press, according to Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment specialist at the Freedom Forum.

“However, any student journalist has the right to be reporting on their community as long as it doesn’t interfere with police doing their jobs,” Goldberg said. “As a reporter you can’t just be there if it means you’re blocking law enforcement or putting the others at risk, but it seems as though (Tuesday) night, people were simply prevented from observing.”

Student journalists often report from protests where law enforcement is present. But the situation at Columbia was especially “unfortunate” given the university’s prestigious journalism school, Goldberg said.

“The school is supposed to have one of the top journalism programs in the country. Traditionally, it’s been an incredible atmosphere for free speech,” he said. “I think this is out of character and very unfortunate.”

University spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY about the treatment of student journalists on campus.

The Student Law Press Center is tracking freedom of the press disruptions by police or administrators during the protests. The group has found several cases where student journalists were blocked from reporting on the Pro-Palestinian protests, including at the University of Southern California, University of California at Los Angeles, Northwestern and Princeton, Josh Moore, an assistant director at the organization, said in an email to USA TODAY.

Other than those reports, “student journalists seem to be largely steering clear of trouble while doing their work,” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for Student Press Law Center.

Officials from the Student Press Law Center urged "administrators and law enforcement to work directly with student journalists to ensure they can safely and responsibly report on the historic events unfolding across the country.”

“Now is the time to strengthen our commitment to the student press, not sideline or undermine it.”

Amid arrests and chaos, Columbia's student radio station stayed on air. America listened. (2024)

FAQs

What happened at Columbia University protest? ›

Explaining the campus protests. The pro-Palestinian protests against the Israel-Hamas war have resulted in hundreds of arrests and police being called to disperse encampments on campus. Columbia University canceled its main commencement ceremony.

What was the purpose of the Columbia University protests in 1968? ›

Initial demonstrations at Columbia University in April 1968 started with the threat of violence between radical students who wanted to end the university's ties to war research during the Vietnam War and terminate a university gymnasium construction project and mostly white athletes who wanted to push forward with it.

How long was Columbia encampment? ›

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators camped out on the school's main lawn for about two weeks in April, calling for Columbia to divest from companies doing business with Israel.

How much is Columbia University protesting tuition? ›

Columbia University students — who are paying an eye-watering $89,000 in tuition — say they're not getting their money's worth now that campus is closed in the wake of ongoing protests and riots. Early Tuesday morning, the university announced that the grounds are closed to all students who don't live on-site in dorms.

Why are students protesting at Columbia University and why is the university cracking down on them? ›

Columbia called in the police twice in April.

The police swept into the encampment to arrest defiant protesters and dismantle the demonstration, which was calling for the university to eliminate its financial ties to Israel. The authorities reported more than 100 arrests.

What percentage of Columbia arrests were students? ›

Those arrested were charged with crimes including burglary, obstructing governmental administration and criminal mischief. But the majority of those arrested at Columbia – 71% – were students, not outsiders, according to the release from the mayor and the NYPD.

Is the Columbia encampment still active? ›

Here's how some schools avoided that. Pro-Palestinian students celebrate reaching a deal with the administration at Brown University, bringing an end to their encampment, in Providence, Rhode Island on April 30, 2024.

Was the Columbia crew recovered? ›

All of the astronauts' remains were recovered in East Texas. “Every time remains were recovered, they would pause and everything and have a moment of silence,” said Orwig. Two decades later, pieces of the shuttle are still being found, a reminder of this tragic historical event that took place in the Texas sky.

How was the Columbia destroyed? ›

Video from the launch appeared to show the foam striking Columbia's left wing. It was later found that a hole on the left wing allowed atmospheric gases to bleed into the shuttle as it went through its fiery re-entry, leading to the loss of the sensors and eventually, Columbia itself and the astronauts inside.

What do Columbia students get for free? ›

Here are some of the perks that you can get with a Columbia ID. With a Columbia ID and current semester validation sticker on it, Columbia students can gain free access to 30 museums around New York, including: the MoMA; the Met; Asia Society; and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

How much is a 1 year tuition at Columbia University? ›

$65,340

Is Columbia University too expensive? ›

At Columbia University, where a "Gaza solidarity" encampment has now entered its second week, the total cost for attendance is $89,587 per school year, accounting for $68,400 in tuition and fees, along with added expenses such as housing and books.

Did Columbia University call in police to clear campus of protesters? ›

A total of 109 people were arrested as police officers entered Columbia's main campus, which was on lockdown, and cleared Hamilton Hall of a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had broken in and occupied it the night before.

What happened with the protests that broke out on the campus of the university of Wisconsin Madison in October of 1967? ›

Students clashed with police, and a number of them resisted arrest and were forcibly carried out of the building. There were reports of some protesters being beaten by police with nightsticks. Finally, police threw canisters of tear gas into the building to break up the crowd.

Why did they take over Hamilton Hall? ›

For months, pro-Palestinian students had protested to urge the university to divest from Israel, among other demands, over the country's offensive in Gaza, eventually setting up a tent encampment. But the takeover of Hamilton Hall was a marked escalation.

Why did college students protest the Vietnam War so much? ›

Democratic president Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965 gave SDS a cause of its own, as well as a recruiting boost. SDS leaders opposed the war because they felt it was unjust and feared being drafted. As the war continued to escalate, so did the militancy of anti-war students.

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