This Week: Campus violence; proposals to ease marijuana restrictions and more

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campus violence
Police in Portland, Ore., clash with protesters who reoccupied the Portland State University Library building in Portland May 2, 2024, after it had been cleared. Several protesters demonstrating against the war between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas were detained earlier in the day. (OSV News photo/Jan Sonnenmair, Reuters)r

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — President Joe Biden condemned unrest on some college campuses across the country amid protests of the war in Gaza, arguing that “dissent must never lead to disorder.”

The same week in Washington, the White House announced 19 Americans would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Also, the Biden administration plans to ease federal restrictions on marijuana, according to multiple reports.

Biden condemns violence in campus protests

Tensions on some college campuses, including Columbia University, have been mounting as demonstrators refuse to remove encampments or have occupied buildings, and administrators have sought out police to clear them from campus by force. The New York Police Department said that more than a quarter of protesters arrested April 30 at Columbia University and 60% of those arrested at the City College of New York had no connections to those institutions and were neither students nor faculty.

In May 2 comments from the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Biden said, “We’ve all seen the images, and they put to the test two fundamental American principles.”

“The first is the right to free speech and for people to peacefully assemble and make their voices heard,” he said. “The second is the rule of law. Both must be upheld.”

“We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent,” he continued. “The American people are heard. In fact, peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues. But — but neither are we a lawless country. We are a civil society, and order must prevail.”

Protesters gather at the University of California Los Angeles May 1, 2024, to demonstrate against Israel’s ongoing military offensive on the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in response to the Oct. 3, 2023, attacks on Israel by Hamas that resulted in kidnappings and hundreds of deaths. (OSV News photo/David Swanson, Reuters)

Biden said “violent protest is not protected; peaceful protest is,” arguing violence is against the law, including property destruction, threats or intimidation, “vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations — none of this is a peaceful protest.”

“Dissent is essential to democracy,” he said. “But dissent must never lead to disorder or to denying the rights of others so students can finish the semester and their college education.”

Asked by a reporter if the protests have led him to “reconsider any of the policies with regard to the region” Biden replied, “No.”

Biden has faced backlash from within his own party over his handling of Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas that has led to a growing civilian casualty count in Gaza, and from Republicans who argued he had not forcefully condemned the campus unrest.

A group called Christians for Ceasefire held a May 3 prayer vigil outside the White House in what organizers called “solidarity with the hundreds of university students and faculty that have engaged in nonviolent resistance in recent weeks” in response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Speakers at the vigil included Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, who also is president of Pax Christi USA. Participants called for “an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza and adherence to international law by all parties and “the release of all remaining Israeli hostages held by Hamas, including children and elderly, and for the release of all Palestinian political prisoners held unjustly by Israel.”

May 3 was the 41st anniversary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ landmark pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” addressing the issue of war in the nuclear age.

Catholic priest, former House Speaker Pelosi among new Medal of Freedom recipients

Biden is scheduled May 3 to give the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 19 people, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit Catholic priest who is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries.

The White House said the award is given to “individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.”

“President Biden often says there is nothing beyond our capacity when we act together,” the White House said. “These nineteen Americans built teams, coalitions, movements, organizations, and businesses that shaped America for the better. They are the pinnacle of leadership in their fields. They consistently demonstrated over their careers the power of community, hard work, and service.”

In 2017, then-President Barack Obama surprised Biden, his vice president, with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Biden was moved to tears at the ceremony, telling those in attendance he had “no inkling” he also would receive the award.

In 2004, then-President George W. Bush presented the award to Pope John Paul II during a visit to the Vatican in Rome.

Biden administration plans marijuana reclassification

The Biden administration plans to announce an interim rule soon that would reclassify marijuana from the strictest Schedule I to the less strict Schedule III, NBC News reported.

The reclassification would move marijuana from the same category that includes heroin, methamphetamines and LSD and other drugs “with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” the report said, to the category that includes substances such as Tylenol with codeine, steroids and testosterone, and marijuana could be studied for “concrete medical benefits.”

The move comes as a growing number of states legalize or scale back restrictions on the drug.

Proponents of legalizing the drug point to what they call harsh criminal penalties for its use, with some arguing it should be regulated like alcohol rather than like other drugs. However, opponents say the drug is more dangerous or addictive than advocates suggest.

In a November 2023 pastoral letter, “That They May Have Life,” Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver wrote that his state’s legalization of marijuana backfired and has led to human suffering.

While “there are many legitimate uses of therapeutic drugs (such as) medicines that assist in restoring the body to health,” illicit drugs — which are “any kind of psychoactive substance that is recreationally used to artificially cause significant changes in consciousness” — seek to replace an authentic relationship with God, Archbishop Aquila argued.

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.