Aidan O’Neill was supposed to be in Spain right now. The University of Massachusetts Amherst junior was set to leave on Jan. 3 for his study-abroad program in Barcelona, which he’d been planning since last spring.
But weeks before he was supposed to leave, O’Neill learned UMass had revoked his eligibility to study abroad, along with that of two other students, leaving them on the hook for thousands of dollars in fees and travel expenses while scrambling to find housing and still-open courses in Amherst. At the crux of it was the students’ fateful decision to join an Oct. 25 campus protest in support of Palestinians, where they were arrested along with dozens of other students and placed on disciplinary probation.
“To lose my abroad eligibility at the last second, that was just heartbreaking,” said O’Neill, now staying in his hometown, Scituate, until the spring semester starts on Feb. 1. “I was practicing my right as a student to speak up against the university funding a genocide. It just seemed, honestly, crazy and absurd to me that the university was going that far to punish me.”
During a tumultuous time on college campuses across the country following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, the incident is another example of a clash between university administrators and student protesters opposing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
While UMass said it was simply following policies outlined in agreements students signed, the three students whose study-abroad eligibility was revoked say they are facing unusually harsh punishment because of their political views, with at least one threatening to sue. The saga has sparked concerns around First Amendment rights on campus and seen a flood of support from UMass students, faculty, and alumni calling on the university to drop disciplinary sanctions.
O’Neill “was participating in a peaceful expression of his political convictions,” said Rachel Mordecai, an English department faculty member and O’Neill’s faculty adviser. “This denial of the opportunity to study-abroad constitutes a disproportionate penalty for what Aidan participated in.”
Mordecai wrote a letter, obtained by the Globe, signed by 23 other English department faculty members, to UMass Amherst’s International Programs Office in support of O’Neill, whom they called “an exceptionally successful and talented student.”
Jason Moralee, UMass Amherst associate dean of research and diversity, equity, and inclusion, also wrote to fellow administrators in support of O’Neill and the other two students, urging the International Programs Office to “clear these students for study abroad swiftly.”
Moralee previously served as director of the UMass Oxford Summer Seminar in England for two years. In his experience, he wrote, students are “routinely” cleared to study abroad even if they have code of conduct violations or are on academic probation for drunk and disorderly arrests or academic dishonesty.
“Surely, peaceful protest done by exemplary students whose records are otherwise clear . . . is an offense that should not in itself prevent students from studying abroad,” he continued.
UMass told the Globe that students with active academic sanctions are not cleared to study abroad. The university said its disciplinary measures have nothing to do with the content of the October protest; rather, administrators are just following policy for students who are placed on disciplinary probation for any reason.
“To participate in a UMass Amherst study-abroad program, students must be in good standing academically with the university and in compliance with the university’s Code of Student Conduct,” university spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said in an email statement. “Consistent with the university’s past practice and the Student Agreement of Participation signed by each student, IPO revoked eligibility for these students to study abroad for the upcoming winter/spring terms.”
It all began Oct. 25 when about 500 students staged a sit-in at the Whitmore Administration Building, demanding UMass cut ties with defense contractor Raytheon Technologies, which produces missile components for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system. After refusing to leave when the building closed at 6 p.m., 56 students, including O’Neill, and one staff member were arrested for trespassing, and later placed on disciplinary probation until the end of the spring semester.
The IPO then revoked O’Neill’s study-abroad eligibility, citing an agreement he had signed stipulating that students cannot participate if they have pending legal or disciplinary actions or are on academic probation.
But O’Neill and the two other students, whose lawyers declined to identify them, say their disciplinary treatment isn’t consistent with past practice.
In 2016, 19 UMass Amherst students were arrested for trespassing at a sit-in at the same building, demanding UMass divest from fossil fuel companies. However, the university did not pursue further disciplinary action, according to Mica Reel, who was a UMass sophomore that year and led the divestment campaign. In fact, Reel said, UMass leadership expressed support for the 2016 protesters and the university divested its endowment from fossil fuels a month later.
Rachel Weber, an attorney who represented the 57 protesters arrested in October in district court, said the university’s handling of the pro-Palestinian students constituted “differential treatment” compared to the 2016 protest.
“It certainly raises a specter that they are being punished for the content of their speech,” Weber said.
Blaguszewski said the university couldn’t confirm whether students in 2016 faced further academic sanctions because student disciplinary records are not maintained after seven years.
He added that in addition to the three arrested students, six other students had study-abroad privileges revoked for the winter and spring semesters due to various conduct violations. He said that is routine, with several students facing revocations due to disciplinary sanctions each year.
O’Neill said he and the other two students were left in “limbo” when they were told they couldn’t study abroad in an email from the program director around 4 p.m. on Dec. 15 — the last day of the semester. O’Neill said he did not have the opportunity to appeal the decision.
The students had already made travel and accommodation plans through Education Abroad, the company that arranges overseas study for UMass, with some expenses nonrefundable. They hadn’t registered for spring classes at UMass Amherst. At least one did not have housing lined up.
One student faces up to $20,000 in fees for the overseas program, according to the student’s attorney, Shahily “Shay” Negrón.
“They have been extremely distraught,” Negrón said. “This entire ordeal has had a toll on my client emotionally [and] financially.”
Negrón said the student was unable to persuade UMass officials to reverse their decision at a hearing in early January, and is now considering suing.
UMass is “harming my client because she exercised her right to free speech,” Negrón said.
But experts say a First Amendment violation case could be tough to make, especially because the students had signed the study-abroad agreement. The student would need to prove that disciplinary measures were based on the substance of their protest, or that the process was otherwise unfair, said Boston University law professor Robert Tsai.
“These are not easy arguments to win,” Tsai said. “Just because someone’s been treated more leniently doesn’t mean that the university is doing so because they agree with the speech.”
Moralee wants the university to investigate the disciplinary proceedings.
“The process looks irregular, and the university owes it to everyone to conduct an independent investigation,” Moralee said. “Is the process fair? Can we be confident that bias and discrimination hasn’t played a role in suppressing free speech on campus?”
O’Neill, meanwhile, is considering pursuing study abroad next year, after his probation ends. And for now, he is left to rue his lost time overseas.
“If things had happened differently, I’d be in Barcelona right now, living with the host family and having the study-abroad experience,” O’Neill said. “I feel really crushed by my university. I feel like they’ve just betrayed my trust for the last time.”