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Efforts to Control Gaza Protests Threaten Free Speech and Academic Freedom

When I was in college, one of my professors had written her PhD thesis on the cultural aspects of the post-civil-war militias, organizations that would evolve into the National Guard of today. These units proliferated at the time to give men, who lived in the shadow of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ Civil War service, a chance to emulate their exploits. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, the men of these militias volunteered en masse. They finally had a chance to prove themselves worthy of their forbears and do something daring and dangerous.

My professor suggested that she and other academics were in an analogous situation. For them—and they were almost all on the left—missing out on the 1960s meant they missed out on a period of revolutionary change and ferment. For left-leaning academics, the 1960s was the era of breaking rules, smashing idols, and inventing new ideas and methods to address the abandonment of the old authorities. This period featured the debut of influential prophets of “unmasking” so prevalent in academic life today, such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Herbert Marcuse

If the 1960s was the time where we on the right saw order, reason, and tradition collapsing within and outside the academy, for the far left, these same events symbolized the march of progress: a time where a new respect for equality among the races emerged, old and oppressive traditions collapsed, imperialism went into retreat, and a vital and emotion-laden youth culture had become dominant.

The anti-war and civil rights movements coincided during the 1960s. Similar anti-colonial and anti-fascist movements swept through Europe. In all these cases, large public demonstrations functioned as important, symbolic displays of people power.

Anti-Israel Protests Are Not Half as Big or Violent as 2020’s BLM Riots

The left’s latest cause célèbre is opposing the Israeli counterterrorism operation in Gaza. A lot of Israel’s supporters have been aghast at the size and scale of these protests, openly wondering why the students are spending so much time protesting at all and, after years of championing free speech, are calling for censorship to stop anti-Semitism.

Protests on college campuses are nothing new. They happened over the last 20 years in opposition to the Iraq War, against globalism, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many other leftist causes. In the 1980s, there were extensive campus protests to oppose apartheid and support divestment from South Africa and to protest American foreign policy in Central America. And, of course, there were enormous protests against the Vietnam War a generation earlier.

The current protests are a fraction of the size and scale of violence surrounding the BLM protests of 2020. The class of those vilified has shrunk too. BLM attacked white people as a whole and called for violence against the police; the current protests are aimed at Zionists, that is, supporters of Jewish nationalism in the Jews’ historic homeland.

In addition to violence, there was also a lot of nasty language associated with BLM. Many of the critics of the Gaza protests apparently didn’t notice the criminality, thuggery, and genocidal language of leftist protests until their own group was in the crosshairs. Welcome to the party.

I will state as a preliminary matter that there is a difference between protest and targeted harassment and that the latter should not be protected as free speech. That said, our foreign policy towards Israel should be subject to debate and accepted as a target of protest as much as anything else. Suggestions that such views are beyond the pale and warrant expulsion simply because they are unpopular are impossible to square with the First Amendment and more general American principles of free speech.

There have been many overwrought and dishonest criticisms of recent campus protests, but they do not appear more violent or more sinister than other protests of recent years. They mostly seem to be peaceful sit-ins. While violence and threats of violence have no place on campus, part of academic freedom and the college experience involves encountering ideas one disagrees with. Like most protests, these assemblies consist of a majority that is law-abiding and engaging in free speech and a much smaller minority of angry, anti-social agitators. And this division is evident everywhere you look.

Young People In Search of a Cause

We should try to understand what is happening in the world around us. People oriented towards practical matters like money, power, and personal advancement often do not understand those of a more romantic sensibility. While many people attend college to get credentials so that they can get ahead, others are motivated by a desire to live a life of meaning and sacrifice in service to a cause.

We live in an age with fewer opportunities for heroism and adventure than prior generations. We are not in the middle of a grand struggle like World War II; no manifest destiny is afoot, and we do not even have much of a space program anymore. Most of our struggles are prosaic and personal: pursuing careers, establishing wealth, navigating indifferent bureaucracies, and amusing ourselves with travel and restaurants.

Protests have a strong psychological aspect that goes beyond their formal purposes. Like the militiamen of the post-Civil War era, participants hope to acquire the same elevated reputation and self-esteem as the people they have learned about in school.

For college kids today, history is simply one long tale of western perfidy, interspersed with a few outsider heroes like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King. As with the eager volunteers of the Spanish-American War, living in the shadow of giants has inspired these students to take risks in order to meet the demands of an historical moment. The actual content of the cause is mostly irrelevant to the protesters. They’re on what they see as the right side of history: the side of the oppressed.

Beware of Giving Your Opponents the Martyrdom They Seek

The heavy-handed efforts to crush these protests will almost certainly boomerang. Arrests and police actions will enhance protesters’ sense of being part of a significant and potentially dangerous cause and also increase their credit among the anti-establishment left.

While there have certainly been excesses and obnoxious behavior in the recent wave of protests, this seems to be par for the course, mild even. Unfortunately, most of the Gaza protests critics conflate peaceful protests with anti-social harassment, have been short on facts and long on emotion in their allegations, and deliberately ignore the presence of a substantial Jewish contingent among the anti-Israel protesters. Dropping the hammer on protesters for mere misdemeanors—like the Draconian sanctions imposed on the January 6 protesters—will encourage sympathy and discredit the authorities.

Borrowing an idea from public health, sometimes “harm reduction” is the best approach. Trying to stamp out all Gaza protests should not be a concern of universities, politicians, or police departments. Americans have a right to think whatever we want about Israel, Gaza, foreign policy, and politics, and it is not the job of universities or the government to police “hate speech” or stamp out unpopular opinions. The universities are there to create a forum for the exchange and exploration of ideas, and the government’s job is to maintain public order.

Violence should not be rewarded, but rather, protests on all sides should be channeled in a reasonable and peaceful direction, where communication is the chief function rather than intimidation of others.

After all, opponents of the protests also have a right to an education, to have their physical safety respected, and not to be subject to harassment and threats. University administrators can and should expel those who disrupt classes, shout down speakers, threaten or commit violence against fellow students, direct slurs at individuals, and otherwise violate content-neutral policies about trespassing, violence, harassment, and the like. But these limits to free speech do not include shielding Israel’s supporters from thoughts and ideas they disagree with and labeling all such criticism as prohibited anti-Semitism.

Focusing on these minimal objectives will turn down the heat, avoid the creations of martyrs for attending peaceful protests, and stop the creation of a perpetual motion machine of grievances and new protests about law enforcement behavior.

So Much for “Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings”

For many years, Ben Shapiro and others on the neocon right professed pride in their hard-headedness, summarizing their worldview as “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” So it is a little surprising to hear from him and his fellow travelers how terrible it is that Israel’s supporters have to endure listening to ideas they find offensive, disagreeable, and “hateful.”

If Israel and its policies are so great, they should be able to win the battle of public opinion with facts, logic, and protests of their own. In many respects, they have. Americans are mostly pro-Israel. But life is not always black and white. Some of Israel’s supporters, as well as many Israelis, also object to the scale of destruction in Gaza and the military operation’s apparent inability to provide long-term security.

A moral panic over ordinary expressions of political disagreement, controversial views, and uncouth language is not the way. Such a policy would be inimical to free speech, based on a distorted record, and will only give the activists of the progressive left the validation they are seeking. University and government policy should be built on the solid, content-neutral ground of distinguishing permissible free speech from prohibited criminal violence and harassment.

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: Pro-Palestinian protestors demonstrate at the University of Washington, in Seattle, Washington on April 29, 2024. The protests against Israel's war with Hamas began at Columbia University earlier this month before spreading to campuses across the country. They have posed a major challenge to university administrators who are trying to balance campus commitments to free expression with complaints that the rallies have crossed a line. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP) (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)