As Texas students clash over Israel-Hamas war, Gov. Greg Abbott orders colleges to revise free speech policies

Governor Greg Abbott condemns the recent attacks on Israel during a community gathering in support of Israel at the Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin on Oct. 9, 2023. Abbott also announced efforts for Texas to support Israel, which included funding for increased security at Jewish and Israel-related locations such as synagogues and schools and an Executive Order directing all Texas state agencies to refrain from purchasing goods produced in or exported from the Gaza Strip.
Gov. Greg Abbott attends a community gathering in support of Israel at the Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin on Oct. 9, 2023. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune
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As the Israel-Hamas war continues to ignite tensions among Texas college students, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order requiring schools to discipline what he described as “the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses.”

Higher education institutions are expected to update their free speech policies to include the definition of antisemitism, as well as establish and enforce punishments for violating those policies. Expulsion from the college could be considered an appropriate punishment, Abbott said.

“Texas supports free speech, especially on university campuses, but that freedom comes with responsibilities for both students and the institutions themselves,” Abbott wrote in the Wednesday executive order.

The Israel-Hamas war has tested free speech policies at universities in Texas and across the country. As pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students engage in protests and heated discussions, school leaders have struggled to strike a balance between their roles as moderators and facilitators of intellectual debate on campus.

In the Wednesday executive order, the governor singled out Palestinian student groups on campuses — including the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine — who he says have violated free speech policies and should be subject to discipline.

Texas students with the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine will not stop their political organizing, they said in a joint statement about the executive order. They said Abbott was “resorting to racist misrepresentations to justify the blatantly discriminatory violation of our First Amendment” and using “arbitrary censorship” to slow the student movement. The students called on their university leaders to protect them and their free speech rights.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, an advocacy group for free speech on college campuses, criticized Abbott's executive order, saying it leans on a definition of antisemitism that would involve punishing students for “core political speech,” including any criticism of Israel. And while the free speech group said Texas colleges can and should go after antisemitic harassment, threats and violence, it believed the executive order goes too far.

“State-mandated campus censorship violates the First Amendment and will not effectively answer anti-Semitism,” FIRE said in a statement. “By chilling campus speech, the executive order threatens to sabotage the transformative power of debate and discussion.”

Abbott has been unequivocal in his support of Israel, even traveling to Jerusalem in November to offer the state’s help. And in December, he told Texas colleges they had a “responsibility” to protect Jewish students.

Abbott has not commented on if and how universities should protect pro-Palestine students, who have also faced threats and harassment since the start of the war.

The governor said in a statement Wednesday that the executive order will mean campuses “are safe spaces for the Jewish community.” It comes months after the state dismantled diversity, equity and inclusion offices, whose responsibilities included making college more inclusive to students of all cultures and backgrounds.

Per Abbott’s order, the chair of the board of regents at each college has 90 days to share documentation verifying revisions were made to free speech policies and evidence that those policies have been enforced.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

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