First Amendment

Texas Public Colleges Crack Down on Peaceful Anti-Israel Protests

In March, Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order demanding that colleges crack down on antisemitic speech.


As pro-Palestine demonstrations erupt at college campuses across the nation, several public colleges in Texas have come under fire for cracking down on peaceful protests. While public universities are bound by the First Amendment, a March executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott forces colleges to suppress antisemitic speech, seemingly motivating some of the universities' responses this month.

Following the arrests of over 100 students at a tent encampment at Columbia University, pro-Palestine, anti-Israel protests in solidarity with the Columbia protesters have sprung up at colleges across the county. However, protests at several Texas universities have been met with immediate attempts to suppress demonstrations. 

Students from the University of Texas at San Antonio told the San Antonio Current that, during a pro-Palestine demonstration on Wednesday, administrators told protesters they could not use the phrase "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" in their chants, nor could they use the words "Zionism" and "Israel."

The UT San Antonio students said administrators told them the phrases counted as antisemitic speech and that they were also barred from chanting in Arabic. 

While the students allege a galling suppression of their First Amendment rights, their claims have not yet been fully verified. The San Antonio Current wrote that a university spokesperson who was present during the protest "couldn't immediately comment" on the allegations. A day earlier, UT San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy released a statement warning that the school would "not tolerate disruptive behavior, vandalism, or antisemitism." 

At the University of Texas at Austin, university officials took a much more dramatic stand against student free expression.

On Wednesday, video emerged of police on the UT Austin campus aggressively forcing protesters back and throwing what appears to be a television cameraman to the ground. So far, nearly 60 protesters have been arrested at the college.

"This chilling show of force is a disproportionate response to an apparently peaceful protest," the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a First Amendment group, said in a Wednesday statement responding to the arrests. "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, Gov. Abbott's public commentary makes his disregard for the First Amendment's protection of political speech clear."

While it's unclear whether UT Austin's leadership would have involved police without Abbott's March executive order, the vague order that universities "review and update free speech policies to address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech" certainly doesn't incline university administrators toward protecting peaceful anti-Israel protests. 

For his own part, Gov. Abbott has been bragging about the police crackdown on student protests. 

"These protesters belong in jail," he wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on Wednesday. "Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled."

The idea that a student should be expelled from a public university for joining in a peaceful protest and engaging in protected speech (which "hate-filled, antisemitic" demonstrations almost always are) is absurd—not to mention a prospective violation of the First Amendment.

"For generations, college students have engaged in protest to express their views, to actively participate in the public conversation and, in doing so, to draw wider attention to causes they care about," FIRE wrote on Thursday. "The ability to distinguish between peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and genuine misconduct is as important now as ever."