American University Called on the FBI to Investigate Defaced Posters

Amid campus tensions over the Gaza war, the university declined to explain why the vandalism of posters warrants FBI involvement.

WASHINGTON DC, UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 01: Police take security measures as students of American University attend a campus protest against ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza in Washington, D.C., United States on November 01, 2023. (Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Police take security measures as American University students attend a campus protest against ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1, 2023. Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

American University in Washington, D.C., brought in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to probe the defacement of posters on campus, according to an email sent to students last week.

“No community member should remove or deface any poster,” administrators wrote in the November 16 email. “We are investigating incidents of poster defacement, including in some cases with our FBI partners, and they will be addressed through our policies and conduct process.”

The notice went out the same day a university official sent an email about a recital poster in the campus performing arts center that had been vandalized with “antisemitic language and symbols.” American University students told The Intercept they have seen other posters and campus materials vandalized and taken down, including ones critical of Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza and U.S. backing for the war.

The FBI’s involvement at American University comes as college campuses across the country witness a heightened presence of law enforcement personnel amid student protests over the war in Gaza. At Columbia University in New York, police squads have ramped up their campus patrols, while police at Brandeis University in Massachusetts violently detained students demonstrating against the campus ban of pro-Palestinian student groups.


Student Protests for Gaza Targeted by Pro-Israel Groups for Alleged Civil Rights Violations

At Queens College, administrators contacted the New York Police Department in response to a student group’s social media posts about the October 7 Hamas attack. The Anti-Defamation League — which has demanded that schools investigate whether a Palestine solidarity group with chapters at universities nationwide is materially supporting terrorists — has called for the FBI and IRS to probe such campus organizations.

Kiah Duggins, a civil rights attorney at Civil Rights Corps, said that FBI’s involvement at American University, as well as the broader deployment of police agencies at college campuses, evokes the history of law enforcement agencies cracking down on students protesting for civil rights or against the Vietnam War decades ago. “It’s especially important that students’ First Amendment rights are protected because as we’ve seen throughout history, students when they speak up are usually speaking up for human rights, speaking up for civil rights, speaking up for peace, and so institutions should ensure that their rights to speak up for these kinds of really important issues are protected.” 

The university declined to comment on why the defacement of posters warranted FBI involvement, citing the ongoing investigation. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

“There are fears that this is going to be used to completely quash any free speech on campus.”

American University student Julie Austin told The Intercept that the increased police presence on campus is unnerving to students. “There are fears that this is going to be used to completely quash any free speech on campus,” she said.

The defacement of posters has become a flashpoint of its own in the U.S. debate over Israel’s war on Gaza, as people have been caught on camera removing posters related to the conflict, particularly ones depicting hostages Hamas took on October 7. In one high-profile example, a New York public defender took down posters of the hostages after hecklers put up ones that reportedly justified the bombing of Palestinian civilians. A video of her actions went viral, and she resigned amid the firestorm that ensued. 

The blowback from that incident has made its way to American University. “Obviously, taking down the provocative posters plays right into the hand of the group putting them up, esp if people document it,” one student wrote to The Intercept, noting that he was told by fellow activists to avoid removing posters.

Ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, the university campus has been papered with posters about the horrendous assault and Israel’s retaliatory attack on Gaza. Those include a poster bearing the logo for Standing Together, a joint Jewish and Palestinian-led organization, that read “only peace will bring safety,” with images of individuals whose family members were killed by Hamas. Other posters with messages like “kidnapped by Hamas” or “murdered by Israel” have been defaced or removed, students told The Intercept, as has one that brought attention to the U.S. government’s role in the conflict. 

“America gives over $3 BILLION PER YEAR to Israel to fund the military occupation of Palestine,” that poster read. “They are using OUR tax money towards genocide instead of healthcare, infrastructure, or education for Americans.” 

The university has called on the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to investigate other campus incidents in recent weeks as well.

Last month, American University President Sylvia Burwell warned of swastikas and “Nazi slogans” drawn in a first-year residence hall, on the doors of two rooms of Jewish students and in a bathroom. Days later, a note that read “GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM” and “DEATH TO ALL PALESTINIANS” was found in a Palestinian staff member’s office.

Following those incidents, university officials wrote in another email that they are partnering with “area law enforcement and intelligence organizations across the city” to monitor “external threats and activities.” The university added that it was “working alongside the FBI as we continue to collaborate on the investigation of the incidents of hate on our campus targeted at parts of our community that impact all of us.”

In an email on Tuesday about the university’s efforts to address both Islamophobia and antisemitism on campus, Burwell reiterated that university officials were working with the FBI, but also appeared to acknowledge that not everything happening on campus warrants law enforcement intervention. “In addition to continuing to work with the FBI,” Burwell wrote, “we are addressing other harms that undermine our sense of community even if they may not involve law enforcement action.”

Join The Conversation