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Texas gov blames pro-Palestinian students in new free speech order for universities


In the nearly six months of Israel's war against Hamas, American college campuses have become the epicenter of protests against the war. Last week Texas Governor Greg Abbott took steps to try to crack down on those protests. He ordered the state's public colleges and universities to revise their free speech policies, blaming pro-Palestinian student groups for a rise in antisemitism. Texas Public Radio's Camille Phillips reports.

CAMILLE PHILLIPS, BYLINE: In his executive order, Governor Abbott reiterated his unwavering support for Israel and says there has been a, quote, "sharp rise" in antisemitism on college campuses in Texas since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. He directs universities to update their free speech policies and create punishments for antisemitic speech and acts, including possible expulsion. And that could affect Fatima Tulkarem.

FATIMA TULKAREM: We've seen, like, repression and censorship happen to, like, student organizers all across the United States.

PHILLIPS: The University of Texas at Dallas student is vice president of her chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Abbott's order singled out her group and the Palestine Solidarity Committee for discipline. Tulkarem says Governor Abbott's order violates her First Amendment rights and is a misrepresentation of her organization's goals.

TULKAREM: We want justice for Palestinians in Palestine, and in his executive order, he kind of framed it as us fighting for something else.

PHILLIPS: In his order, Abbott accuses the student groups of antisemitic speech and inciting violence. Arthur Maserjian is with the group Combat Antisemitism Movement. He supports the governor's order and thinks it will help protect Jewish students. He says the definition of antisemitism Abbott directs universities use will help administrators know what actions cross the line and should be punished.

ARTHUR MASERJIAN: When Jewish Americans or Jewish Texans generally are being targeted by groups because of what's happening in the Middle East thousands of miles away, you know, that's a form of contemporary antisemitism.

PHILLIPS: Maserjian points to spray-painted words about genocide and murder on a Jewish student building at UT Austin last month as an example of the rise in antisemitism. The perpetrator of that crime has not been identified. In February, a 23-year-old Palestinian American was stabbed near UT Austin after attending a protest. A 36-year-old white man was arrested for the attack. Pro-Palestinian activists like Tulkarem see a double standard in the governor's order because it makes no mention of consequences for other types of hate speech.

TULKAREM: And all these Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab hate crimes are happening, and our university hasn't said anything about them.

PHILLIPS: When asked about the students' concerns, the University of Texas system sent a statement saying they are, quote, "opposed to discrimination, bigotry and hatred in all forms, including antisemitism," and would comply with the governor's order. Rachel Carroll Rivas is with the Southern Poverty Law Center. She says the U.S. is seeing a spike in both anti-Jewish and anti-Arab hate right now.

RACHEL CARROLL RIVAS: And that's because many of the same groups who are really fermenting and targeting Jewish community are also the same groups who are targeting Muslim and Arab communities.

PHILLIPS: Carroll Rivas says the groups behind that rise in hate are far-right, anti-government extremists and that those groups often target college campuses. The state's public universities have 90 days to show proof they've implemented Abbott's order. Pro-Palestinian student activists are concerned about the consequences they could face, but they say it won't stop them from speaking out. For NPR News, I'm Camille Phillips in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELTRON 3030 SONG, "3030") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camille Phillips
Camille Phillips covers education for Texas Public Radio.She previously worked at St. Louis Public Radio, where she reported on the racial unrest in Ferguson, the impact of the opioid crisis and, most recently, education.