Free Speech

The Antisemitism Awareness Act Will Make It Illegal To Criticize Israel on Campus

The protesters deserve criticism—but Congress is the real threat.


Raucous pro-Palestine protests have taken over college campuses across the country for the past several days. At UCLA, protesters declared areas of campus off-limits to pro-Israel students and blocked them from entering certain spaces, even just to get to class. At night, masked counter-protesters attacked the pro-Palestine encampment, tearing down barricades and shooting fireworks at the protesters.

At the University of Texas at Austin, police brutally dispersed student protesters. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was among those arrested at Washington University in St. Louis. Administrators at Brown University persuaded protesters to disband their encampment peacefully after agreeing to discuss their demands for financial divestiture from companies that do business with the Israeli military.

Events at Columbia University came to a head after the authorities finally tired of the occupation of Hamilton Hall. Protesters had smashed the windows of the administrative building, entered it, taken over, held a janitor hostage, and demanded humanitarian aid—not for Gaza, but for themselves. (I.e., they wanted snacks.)

It is easy to make fun of these protesters, many of whom seem to know very little about why they are even protesting. And some of their antics deserve not just mockery, but condemnation: Statements in support of terrorist violence and exhortations for "Zionists" to be killed "or worse" are contemptible, as are tactics that involve preventing other students from moving about campus and pursuing their education.

But critics of the campus left should not lose sight of the much greater threat, which is that campus authority figures, members of law enforcement, and even national legislators will act in a manner that gravely threatens the free speech rights of everyone. Indeed, in response to the protests, identity-obsessed busybodies are already working overtime to discourage protests on the grounds that offensive speech is a threat to the safety of Jewish students.


Safe Space Reprise

These are not new arguments; for years, university bureaucrats have subtly chipped away at their institutions' stated protections for free speech by invoking dubious safety concerns. You might remember the concept of the safe space: A very real notion, frequently invoked by progressive student activists, that being forced to confront speech with which they disagree is a form of physical violence.

In my first book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, I traveled to college campuses and interviewed activists. What I learned was that for a variety of reasons—their upbringing, their ideology, their social circles—they did not want free and unfettered debate. They thought that outside speakers, professors, and even other students should be silenced for expressing nonprogressive views. In fact, they viewed the university administration's role as that of a parent, shielding them from painful speech. Administrators were all too happy to comply, and school after school took steps to shield their most unreasonable students from emotional vulnerability. Not all of these efforts are explicitly contrary to free speech principles, even though they were universally silly: In 2016, for instance, the University of Pennsylvania created a safe space so that students spooked by former President Donald Trump's rise to the presidency could take time to breathe, play with coloring books, and pet some puppies. Duke University's 2016-era safe space—a production of the campus's diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracy—included the presence of a social worker.

More perniciously, hundreds of campuses created bias incident reporting systems, whereby students were instructed to call the campus authorities—in some cases, the literal cops—if they overheard anyone say something that could offend another person on the basis of a protected class, such as race, gender, sexuality, or ability status. At Colby College, someone filed a bias incident report when they overheard the phrase "on the other hand," with no explanation given, though I gather the ever-vigilant person worried that a one-handed person might take offense.

These developments on campuses produced widespread mockery from many Democrats as well as Republicans. Aside from a minority of extremely difficult young people, and the administrators who coddle them, most people do not think the university's job is to protect students from having their feelings hurt.


Enter Congress

Unfortunately, many elected officials are hypocrites, and during a perceived crisis—like the one unfolding on college campuses right now—they are all too eager to pass bad laws. Case in point: On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act by a margin of 320–91. This bill empowers the Education Department to take action against educational institutions that do not sufficiently combat antisemitic speech on campus. It also defines antisemitism incredibly broadly; Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), who voted against the bill, pointed out on X that political statements about Israel could be punished if the bill became law.*

Some of the statements deemed impermissible antisemitism include "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination" with respect to a Jewish state and "applying a double standard" to the state of Israel. It should go without saying, but the First Amendment robustly protects the right to disagree with the political project of Israel. This bill is obviously unconstitutional, and moreover, a clear violation of the idea that college students don't need protection from uncomfortable speech. Universities must protect their campuses from violence and harassment, whether motivated by antisemitism, some other political animus, or any other cause. It's the action that should count, not the content of the belief.

The collective national media are obsessed with campus protests, and understandably so—the spectacle of disproportionately elite, privileged young people resorting to histrionics is frequently amusing to general audiences. People should feel free to mock them, but let's not forget that Congress is using them as a pretext to grant vast new powers to federal bureaucrats, with the explicit goal of enshrining into law a new right not to be offended: one giant safe space.


This Week on Free Media

Reason's Emma Camp and I mocked Drew Barrymore's cringeworthy interview with Vice President Kamala "Momala" Harris, surveyed media coverage of the campus protests, criticized the Biden campaign's youth outreach strategy, and argued about RFK Jr.'s appeal.


Worth Watching

Famed satire website The Onion was recently acquired by Ben Collins, a former disinformation beat reporter for NBC News. (Regular readers will know Collins and I have clashed before.)

That said, I have to give him props for his plan to revive The Onion's TV department. I am particularly eager to the see return of Today Now, the site's mock morning show. The entire archive is available here; the humor has only become more relevant for me over time, now that I, too, host a morning show. It's hard to pick a favorite, but here's one.

*Correction: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the language of the Antisemitism Awareness Act.