A pro-Palestinian protester screams at a member of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office after tear gas canisters were shot toward a human barricade at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

When University of South Florida student Alina Atiq took her place among pro-Palestinian protesters on the school’s campus Tuesday, she expected pushback from school police. The day before, she was present when campus police broke up a similar event, arresting three protesters.

As her fellow protesters tried for a second day to erect a tent in the campus square, she was surprised to see what felt like hundreds of police officers decked out in full riot gear, Atiq said at a Tuesday news conference.

After giving repeated warnings to disperse, Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies tossed at least half a dozen smoking canisters into the cluster of protesters, videos of the event show.

“We didn’t expect the tear gas,” Atiq said.

Videos of USF students fleeing the fumes joined the montage of images of police at campuses around the nation using what can appear to be extreme tactics to quell campus protests.

Protesters and some First Amendment experts have raised alarms at the use of what they say is disproportionate force to silence protected criticism of universities and U.S. foreign policy.

But law enforcement officials say the response at USF was appropriate as they tried to balance freedom of speech rights and safety.

In the past week, at least 37 students and activists protesting Israel’s actions in its war with Hamas were arrested at Florida public universities. More than 2,000 had been arrested on college campuses nationally as of Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

“This is Florida, a law and order state,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement Tuesday. “Every student should be able to freely move about campus without fear of harassment or intimidation. The moment a peaceful protestor arms his or herself with a shield or attempts to occupy a space that isn’t theirs, as occurred today, they will be dispersed.”

Confronting peaceful protesters

In a 2022 report, the Police Executive Research Forum recommended that police agencies focus on facilitating First Amendment rights, rather than cracking down on protesters.

The report cautions against the use of “less-than-lethal” weapons against peaceful protesters. That includes tear gas, which can “inflict serious injuries and even death.”

The gas should be used only when the crowd “has become violent or is causing significant property damage,” the report states. Even then police must repeatedly communicate an order to disperse and give the crowd enough time to safely comply.

“These weapons should not be used against peaceful demonstrators, even if demonstrators are engaging in minor acts of civil disobedience that do not threaten public safety, such as occupying a park without a permit,” the report concludes.

At USF, police determined that Tuesday’s event was no longer peaceful after officers “observed participants in person and through social media expressing their intent to use some of the items they brought on campus as weapons and to resist university staff members and law enforcement,” USF Police Department spokesperson Michael Lavelle wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The protesters had locked arms and were holding umbrellas and shields made of wood.

At that point, the campus police, along with leadership from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Tampa Police Department and Florida Highway Patrol, decided to take measures to disperse the event, Lavelle wrote.

“Several law enforcement agencies, including members of our Crisis Negotiations Team, gave multiple lawful commands to evacuate the area as it was an unsanctioned protest,” sheriff’s spokesperson Jessica Lang wrote in an email to the Times regarding Tuesday’s protest.

She added: “After repeatedly ignoring those dispersal commands, (the sheriff’s office) used tactical skills to evacuate agitators. That included deploying (tear) gas.”

Police caught in the middle

Being called in to a protest can feel like a no-win situation for police officers, said retired Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan.

Officers have the duty to uphold protesters’ First Amendment rights, he said. But there’s not much latitude for discretion when you’ve been instructed to break up a protest.

“I’m standing here dealing with people who I don’t necessarily have a beef with,” he said. “The police, we’re always thrown in the middle of it. And when there are cellphone cameras and body cams, law enforcement leaders and street cops are very much aware of public perception.”

In that situation, minimizing serious injury is the priority.

“You can use a chemical agent, which is temporary,” he said, “or you physically have to go in, hands-on, and potentially hurt them. And either way it can look ugly.”

Dugan defended the university’s claim that wooden shields carried by protesters on Tuesday could be used as weapons.

“When you have someone taking a defensive posture like that, they’re saying they’re not willing to disperse,” he said.

One video captured by a Tampa Bay Times reporter appears to show a protester throwing a shield at police officers after tear gas was deployed.

Proportional response

The law is clear when it comes to protests on public campuses, said First Amendment lawyer Alex Morey. Outdoor spaces are open to public protest. And while universities can place some reasonable limits on time, place and manner of protests, they cannot shut down speech they disagree with.

When it comes to police use of force: “It’s really hard to call balls and strikes on what constitutes reasonable and proportional response,” said Morey, who is vice president of campus activity at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a civil rights advocacy organization.

“What we’re watching out for is, are the rules being applied evenly, is the response consistent, when it’s a message that you disagree with,” she said.

Her organization launched an investigation into the police response at the University of Texas Austin after Gov. Greg Abbott called for schools to crack down on pro-Palestinian protesters. Morey said they are watching closely as events play out on Florida campuses.

USF history professor Brain Connolly said he’s never seen anything like Tuesday’s confrontation in his 16 years teaching at the school.

Connolly said he briefly joined Monday’s protest but left before police moved in to prevent the erection of a tent.

“I understand the university has rules,” Connolly said. “When you have anti-abortion protesters on campus who are regularly yelling at students, and there’s no response… it’s hard to then say they’re being applied evenly.”

The university’s use of police force in response to minor infractions is intended to send a message, he said. “So the students tried to set up a tent. When you’re using that as a reason to break up a lawful protest, it shows you how the First Amendment is on pretty thin ice.”

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.