Battle over free speech follows Israel-Hamas war
Legal organizations worry about censorship of opposing war opinions
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration instructed Florida public universities last week to ban chapters of a pro-Palestinian student organization from their campuses. Students for Justice in Palestine leads protests against Israel and supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which compares Israel to the government of South Africa during apartheid. The student organization has chapters in multiple countries and across U.S. college campuses, including at least two in Florida.
Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, called for Florida state universities to deactivate their chapters, saying the group illegally backs the Hamas militants who attacked Israel earlier this month, according to a letter written to university presidents at DeSantis’ urging. The United States designated Hamas as a terror group in 1997. But some groups have criticized the directive for violating students’ First Amendment rights to express their diverging opinions about the Israel-Hamas war.
The letter to Florida universities said the actions of National Students for Justice in Palestine amounted to material support for terrorism. Specifically, Rodrigues cited a “toolkit” the organization released after the Hamas attack that stated that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) said the student group’s actions did not go beyond basic expression of beliefs as protected by the First Amendment. FIRE described the Florida directive as “a dangerous—and unconstitutional—threat to free speech. If it goes unchallenged, no one’s political beliefs will be safe from government suppression.”
Earlier this month, two state representatives threatened to defund colleges over student statements that blamed Israel for the Hamas attack, and another lawmaker demanded the expulsion of students and termination of faculty who have justified or excused Hamas’ actions.
A week later, former President Donald Trump proposed banning those who express “open hatred against Israel and America” from college campuses in a post published on the social media platform Truth Social.
“On college campuses, this particular issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been one of the most heated and highly debated issues in the past several decades,” said Zach Greenberg, a FIRE senior program officer who works on campus free speech issues. “Universities will have a choice—they can allow their students to protest and respect their free speech rights, as we encourage them to do, or they can crack down and engage in censorship.” He added that similar tensions with free speech rights followed the 9/11 attack and during the pandemic.
The United States isn’t the only country debating free speech rights as they relate to the war in the Middle East. National and local governments in major European countries have blocked pro-Palestinian protests and detained hundreds of protesters, citing an overriding interest in public order and safety, The Washington Post reported. It added that Berlin officials allow schools to ban traditional keffiyeh scarves, Israeli maps decorated in Palestinian flag colors, and “Free Palestine” stickers.
Last week, the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League reported preliminary data showing anti-Semitic incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault since Hamas attacked on Oct. 7 have increased by 388 percent over the same period last year. In one incident, an individual shouted “I am Hamas” and made death threats to Jewish individuals standing near a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, Calif.
“We’ve seen time and again the results of hate speech, even if it’s protected, it incites people to carry out mass shootings,” said Oren Segal, vice president for the group’s Center on Extremism. “We know that ideas and language are what motivate people, what sort of animate their worldview.”
The ADL report also referenced a scene at Wayne State University in Detroit in which a Jewish student was harassed, shoved, and told “[obscenity] Zionist” while he painted a free speech rock with an Israeli flag. The school newspaper, The South End, reported that pro-Israeli students had decorated the rock in response to a message that pro-Palestinian students had painted hours earlier. Pro-Palestinian students then retaliated again by painting the rock as well as the ground around it.
Wayne State officials said they would not discipline any of the students, but the school then instituted a policy requiring groups to reserve the rock for 24-hour periods and disallowing anyone from painting the ground or surrounding area.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations also reported that it received 774 reports of bias-related acts against Muslims between Oct. 7 and Oct. 24, the largest wave of reports since 2015, a spokesperson told the Associated Press.
Segal said the ADL encourages people to use their freedom of speech to push back against hatred.
“It’s important for people to not cede the public discussion to the bigots and militants among us, but to try to infuse that public discussion with rejection of hatred and thereby offering an alternative view,” he said. “[There is a] desperate need for good ideas and good speech to find as much voice as bad.”