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GOP pushes anti-free speech bills to fight antisemitism

Some conservatives seek to limit anti-Israel speech. Credit: Getty

March 28, 2024 - 7:00pm

Republicans are pushing anti-free speech legislation as they try to restrict antisemitism in their states.

Free speech, particularly at college campuses, has been a primarily conservative issue in the US for well over a decade. But in response to anti-Israel activism from Left-wing student groups, Republicans have made exceptions to their commitment to free speech both in law and spirit.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott published an executive order on Wednesday urging universities to change their free speech rules in order to punish antisemitism. “Review and update free speech policies to address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses and establish  appropriate punishments, including expulsion from the institution,” the order read, explicitly singling out the campus groups Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine.

In a press release, the Governor said he wanted universities to be “safe spaces” for Jewish students, a phrase that has been widely mocked by conservatives in recent years. Abbott himself signed legislation bolstering campus free speech in 2019.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has said the Texas order is a form of “state-mandated campus censorship” which suggests particular organisations should be punished for their views in violation of the First Amendment.

The move was also met with criticism from some on the Right. “How is such a policy different from DEI programs promising to prohibit ‘anti-black speech’?” asked activist Christopher Rufo. “The problem, to me, seems to be conduct, rather than speech: shutting down speakers, threatening students, mobilizing mobs, calling for violence — all of which can be regulated as prohibited conduct, with a universal, rather than particular, policy.”

Texas is just the latest example of a broader Republican push against free speech. A few months earlier, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ordered Students for Justice in Palestine’s University of Florida chapter to be disbanded for allegedly supporting terrorists after its national organisation said “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.” Providing material support for terrorist organisations is illegal under Florida law, but some free speech advocates have argued that the group’s support for Hamas was rhetorical, not material, and thus the crackdown violated the group’s free speech rights.

Other efforts to restrict antisemitism similarly hover near the line of free speech violations: a number of states, led by both Republicans and Democrats, have adopted official definitions of antisemitism aligned with that of the IRHA, which includes the act of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor” as a form of discrimination.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argues that this definition penalises constitutionally protected criticism of the state of Israel. About half of states, including Democratic strongholds such as New York and Colorado, have adopted definitions along these lines, but the latest to join in have been Republican-led: South Dakota, Florida and Indiana have all recently passed such measures.

Months before the 7 October attacks, House Republicans, joined by a sole Democratic cosponsor, introduced legislation that would have barred universities from authorising, facilitating or funding events promoting antisemitism under the IHRA definition, meaning the federal government would have required schools to restrict certain forms of anti-Israel speech.

Some of these restrictions on speech will do doubt end up in court, as DeSantis’s rules already have. But regardless of the constitutionality of these measures, they demonstrate that some conservatives are moving away from free speech as a cultural value.


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
3 months ago

It is trite to equate opposition to free speech with opposition to organised intimidation which makes free speech impossible. Jews are a tiny but conspicuous minority in every country outside Israel. Nobody should apologise for attempting to protect them – and wider society – from antisemitic intimidation, because we are all worse off when such intimidation is unchecked.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Agreed. There are 2.5 billion Muslims in the world, and 15 million Jews. I sincerely doubt it’s the Muslims who need any protection ….. 😉

Dr E C
Dr E C
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Exactly. Free speech should be protected but incitement to violence? I fail to understand how issuing death threats here in the uk isn’t a punishable crime

T Bone
T Bone
3 months ago

The flexibility of progressivism is something to behold. It can transgress any boundary and yet simultaneously demand opponents adhere to those same boundaries.

How many Democrats in Congress have denounced DEI? Oh none. That’s what I thought. Rules only apply to Republicans.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
3 months ago

This is what weakening of the right to free speech in law and and spirit brings us to. If you hate the Right good luck when they are in power; if you hate the Left good luck then. This is why I hate them both…
I stand with Israel And believe free speech is paramount (by no means mutually exclusive). The Left put on a hysterical show of their hypocrisy during the college president’s testimony from a few months ago. Not to be outdone, here comes the Right… Idiots, All…

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
3 months ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

You can hate both for good reason but it’s clear in the past 10 years or so, whether through selective enforcement of laws & policies or censorship or name the liberal corruption, the left through the Dem party have twisted and broken established traditions, whereas the Repubs have essentially played by the rules.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
3 months ago

Even if that was true (which I don’t necessarily concur with). What of it now ? Our rights are not a game of sides…

George K
George K
3 months ago

Plague on both your houses
 idiots supporting mass slaughter against idiots who suddenly realized their tax dollars go to mass slaughter.

mike siroky
mike siroky
3 months ago
Reply to  George K

Mass slaughter to some is a War on Terrorism to others. The US prosecuted a 20 year war on terror in multiple countries in the Middle East and Africa killing 900,000 people, mostly civilians and displacing 38 million. This was America’s response to an attack on 9/11/3001 that claimed 3000 innocent lives. The Hamas attack on Israel killed the equivalent of 50,000 innocent people if it occurred on American soil.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
3 months ago

Does ‘free speech’ mean the right to fool the unwitting, seduce the innocent, and bamboozle the suckers? As P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Is it right that I fool someone else with my words? Use cherry-picked data, appeals to emotion, etc., to pull someone into a zone of thought which is easier to enter than to leave?

I suggest that protecting the innocent, the children, the unwitting, etc., is the responsibility of the wise, the thoughtful, and the caring.

To call for Israel to let its murderers on the other side of the border restore their tunnels, restock their weapons, and make ready for another assault is wrong, free speech be damned!

David Barnett
David Barnett
3 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

“To call for Israel to let its murderers on the other side of the border restore their tunnels, restock their weapons, and make ready for another assault is wrong”
You are right. However, it is good to know who these purveyors of vile nonsense are, now, so we don’t mistakenly try to rely on broken reeds.

Peter Spurrier
Peter Spurrier
3 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

‘Does ‘free speech’ mean the right to fool the unwitting, seduce the innocent and bamboozle the suckers?’ Well, yes, surely.

Dr E C
Dr E C
3 months ago
Reply to  Peter Spurrier

It’s tricky isn’t it. Eg where do people stand on explicitly lying: holocaust denial etc?

R Wright
R Wright
3 months ago

It’s incredible how quickly U.S lawmakers start to break out of their lethargy when Israel is involved. Where were these efforts in 2020?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
3 months ago

They are better off getting rid of TikTok.

P Branagan
P Branagan
3 months ago

Personally I am passionately pro- Semite – particularly for the brutalised downtrodden Palestinian Semites. (For the ignorant among the Unherd readership, look it up – Palestinians ARE Semites).
However, I am equally passionately against brutal racist genocidal Zionazis.

Paul
Paul
3 months ago
Reply to  P Branagan

You really are addicted to lying, aren’t you? The term “antisemite” was invented and popularized in the 19th century (look up Wilhelm Marr and Eduardo Drumont)
specifically as a euphemism for “Jew-hater”; it has never meant anything else, and the coiners of the term didn’t care about Arabs at all, since there were very few in Europe.

mike siroky
mike siroky
3 months ago
Reply to  P Branagan

The Palestinian are only semites linguistically. They speak Arabic, a semitic language. The term “anti semite” was coined in Germany in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr who wrote a book called The Victory of Jewry over Germandom.
Note that Wilhelm Marr did not worry about Arabs – only specifically Jews. Hitler was an anti Semite as shown in Mein Kampf but he didnt put Arabs in Auschwitz or other death camps. Only Jews were targeted by the Nuremberg Laws, not Arabs. In fact, Hitler was allied with the Arabs of Palestine before and during WW2 through Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. If the greatest anti semite in history was allied with Arabs, it would seem the term antisemitic applies only to Jews.

You should learn from the actions of your Fuhrer.

P Branagan
P Branagan
3 months ago

I stand with the millions of Jewish people around the world who abhor the genocidal actions of the vile Zionazi regime.

Paul
Paul
3 months ago
Reply to  P Branagan

Only a handful of Jews have drunk
the Kool-Aid on that; stop lying.

David Barnett
David Barnett
3 months ago

The censors do no favours for the people they allegedly protect. The ADL, for example, has cheapened the term “antisemitism” to the point where real anti-semites use it to their advantage.
Paradoxically, I want the antisemites to reveal themselves by speaking.
Curb intimidation – yes. But the cure for bad speech is more good speech, not censorship.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago
Reply to  David Barnett

100%

Dr E C
Dr E C
3 months ago
Reply to  David Barnett

I totally take your point, but the problem is they recruit others too


David Barnett
David Barnett
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr E C

Dr E C said “I totally take your point, but the problem is they recruit others too
” And there is the rub, because they use the censorship attempt as a recruiting tool.

Countering the lies and libels is not easy, because lies take little effort to invent, and a lot of research to disprove. And even when you have all your facts lined up, logical argument is often ineffective, because few have the humility to acknowledge that they have been deceived.

The best remedy is probably a message cloaked in humour…

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 months ago

A reasonable person might say that the problem is the game, not the players. Sure, it’s easy to take shots at people on the right who have long decried efforts at censorship. Well, those same people were often told that there was no censorship, or that they were wrong about it, or that that Twitter files release was some grand Elonian conspiracy. So they decided that if the rules are not going to change, they’ll play the game, too. And here we are.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago

Way too much going on in this essay. It’s one thing to crack down on free speech, it’s another to crack down on Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that is doggedly supportive of Hamas, which is an official terrorist organization.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
3 months ago

This is to gaslighting what Everest is to mountains

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
3 months ago

Friend/enemy distinctions are more powerful than abstract values.