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

Gov. Greg Abbott attends a community gathering in support of Israel at the Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin on Oct. 9, 2023.
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott attends a community gathering in support of Israel at the Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin on Oct. 9, 2023.

By Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune

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.

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

“State-mandated campus censorship violates the First Amendment and will not effectively answer anti-Semitism,” the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression 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.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Sneha Dey