Colleges banned groups spewing antisemitism. Then new ones formed.

NEW YORK — At George Washington University, a pro-Palestinian student group was suspended for projecting messages on a campus library that read “divestment from Zionist genocide now” and “glory to our martyrs.”

Farther north, Columbia University last week suspended two similar groups for repeatedly flouting college policies, such as holding unauthorized events. And Brandeis University banned its local Students for Justice in Palestine chapter because it “openly supports Hamas.”

The suspensions didn’t have their intended effect. New organizations quickly formed.

The emergence of new groups to supplant suspended ones is confounding colleges as they try to find a line between allowing protests that support a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war with those devolving into hate speech.

At Columbia, “the suspension of those two groups is nothing more than a suppression of speech,” said one Palestinian student who is a member of a new coalition, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, and declined to give his full name for fear of retribution.

Schools like Brown University and MIT have also disciplined students for expressing solidarity with Palestinians. The Biden administration, meanwhile, this week unveiled new actions and resources to address the rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents at schools and on college campuses.

“For many years, we saw increasingly toxic environments on campus poisoned by anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric,” said Kenneth Marcus, founder and chair of the Brandeis Center, a nonprofit that advances Jewish civil and human rights. “But now, over the last month, we have seen student groups who are going so far as to provide support for a designated terrorist organization in the wake of atrocities that they have committed.”

Students, activists and free speech advocates are sounding the alarm on efforts to silence pro-Palestinian groups. And institutions are becoming more cognizant of that: Two of Florida’s biggest universities have declined to deactivate Students for Justice in Palestine groups as requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis due to legal concerns.

The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at one of those schools, the University of Florida, also sued the institution Thursday as well as the state, alleging that its First Amendment rights were being violated. But Republican lawmakers are also looking to take away scholarships and grants from Florida college students who “promote” Hamas and other designated terrorist organizations.

The American Civil Liberties Union wrote an open letter to roughly 650 college leaders to reject “baseless calls to investigate or punish” pro-Palestinian groups protesting on campuses. That came in response to a letter the American Defamation League and the Brandeis Center sent to nearly 200 college leaders urging them to probe Students for Justice in Palestine chapters.

Afaf Nasher, executive director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, called Columbia’s decision “the suppression and silencing of pro-Palestinian voices on campus.”

There was more pushback this week.

Thirteen bar associations representing more than 1,000 attorneys — including the American Muslim Bar Association — on Monday sent a letter to 100 of the country’s top law firms urging them to address Islamophobia and hate speech.

The letter was a response to a missive law firms sent to law school deans requesting they address antisemitism.

The pro-Israel law firms’ letter “unfortunately missed the opportunity to equally express concern for members of the Palestinian and Muslim communities who have been experiencing significant discrimination, harassment, silencing, hate, violence, and fear in the current social climate,” the Muslim groups wrote.

And the protests persist.

Law Students for a Free Palestine — a coalition of students from over 30 law schools, including Harvard, Columbia, New York University and the City University of New York — was holding a day of action Thursday to urge law schools to advocate for an end to violence in Gaza and support a ceasefire.

Student organizations at George Washington also established a new group, Student Coalition for Palestine.

Colleges’ ability to crack down on protests, however, gets into a gray area of the law.

Lyrissa Lidsky, the chair of the constitutional law program at the University of Florida, said the Supreme Court has held that free speech is protected unless it falls in an unprotected category — like material support of a foreign terrorist organization or incitement to imminent violent actions.

Some of the suspensions or banning of pro-Palestinian organizations are problematic because they’re being prohibited solely for advocacy, she argued. But she cautioned private universities are not required to uphold the First Amendment in the same way as public schools.

“Brandeis can do what it wants, Columbia can do what it wants,” Lidsky said in an interview. “They may take a reputational hit from engaging in censorship and they may violate their expressed ideals, but they don’t violate the First Amendment. But a state university like mine has to adhere to the First Amendment, and they can’t suppress those groups just because they find their speech offensive.”

Institutions have targeted Students for Justice in Palestine long before the current conflict in the Middle East. Earlier this year, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania refused to recognize a local chapter over concerns the group’s events could flout college policy by targeting other clubs on campus. Fordham University previously banned the group, too.

Amid an increase in threats, harassment and assaults — including a 21-year-old Cornell University student arrested for making online threats to Jewish students — schools have been facing pressure to take action.

Fareed, a student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs — who asked to be identified by his first name for safety reasons — said the tension in the school community is “still polarizing,” but accused outside actors of labeling the internal tension “as more than what it is.”

“If Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for [Peace] are shut down, then whatever perspective that they have — correct or incorrect, depending on who’s listening to it — you lose that opportunity to have a real conversation,” he said.

Brandeis’ President Ron Liebowitz said last week it is committed to ensuring free speech, but the university “may restrict expression … that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment.”

And in a recent Boston Globe op-ed, he contended that student organizations that call for violence against Jews or the annihilation of Israel “should lose all privileges associated with affiliation at their schools.”

In a statement, George Washington said Students for Justice in Palestine’s actions violated university policies, including building use guidelines and non-compliance when it wouldn’t stop projecting images on the library building.

In a joint statement last week, the Columbia chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace called the announcement “an attack on free speech” to distract from and enable “Israel’s genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people.”

Colleges are also under threat of losing state aid if they don’t clamp down on hate speech, like what is being pursued in Florida.

New York state Sen. Bill Weber, a Republican, introduced legislation that would prohibit New York college students who knowingly engage in antisemitic behavior from receiving tuition assistance aid.

“There is no room for hate in New York, and it is our duty to put an end to this divisive behavior,” he said.

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