April 25, 2024 - 7:15pm

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott is once again back-pedalling on campus free speech in the name of fighting antisemitism.

“Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period,” he wrote in a social media post on Wednesday, alongside footage of state troopers dispersing a campus protest. “Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety, on Abbott’s orders, arrested more than 30 students on Wednesday during a pro-Palestine protest at the University of Texas at Austin. One journalist, who was carrying a large camera, was pulled to the ground by state troopers and detained. DPS mentioned criminal activity, including trespassing, in a press statement, but free speech advocates have portrayed their response as excessive and a violation of the First Amendment, particularly in light of Abbott’s focus on the content of protesters’ speech.

“This chilling show of force is a disproportionate response to an apparently peaceful protest,” Will Creeley, Legal Director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), told UnHerd. “Sending in a phalanx of law enforcement threatens protected speech where it should be at its most free: a public university like UT Austin. Unfortunately, Governor Abbott’s public commentary makes his disregard for the First Amendment’s protection of political speech clear.”

Police have been arresting protesters at anti-Israel demonstrations across the US, and campus administrators are growing increasingly impatient with the unruly events. But university leaders have made a point of presenting arrests and suspensions as a neutral application of the rules and an attempt to restore student safety. This includes staff at Columbia University, where more than 100 were arrested after the school’s president was grilled by members of Congress over campus antisemitism. Abbott has taken the opposite tack, explicitly portraying his actions as ideologically motivated.

Conservative and libertarian commentators were quick to criticise the governor, both for violating protesters’ free speech and for failing to use his powers to deal with issues they consider more pressing, such as illegal immigration. Other conservatives praised the crackdown on protesters, including two Congressional Republicans.

Months earlier, Abbott ordered public universities to address antisemitism in their speech policies in an executive order singling out specific pro-Palestine student groups.

Yet back in 2019, under different political tides, the governor promoted free expression in universities. “Some colleges are banning free speech on college campuses. Well, no more, because I’m about to sign a law that protects free speech on college campuses in Texas,” he said five years ago. “Shouldn’t have to do it. First Amendment guarantees it. Now, it’s law in Texas.”

The Governor of Texas’s office has been contacted for comment


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.