Israel-Hamas War Intensifies Debate Over Free Speech Rights on College Campuses

Discourse surrounding the Israel-Hamas war may leave students wondering what speech is and isn’t protected by the First Amendment.
portrait of Matthew Arrojas
Matthew Arrojas
Read Full Bio


Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on October 25, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Alex Pasquariello
Alex Pasquariello
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Alex Pasquariello is a senior news editor for BestColleges. Prior to joining BestColleges he led Metropolitan State University of Denver's digital journalism initiative. He holds a BS in journalism from Northwestern University....
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Credit: anouchka / iStock Unreleased / Getty Images
  • Various universities and student groups released statements regarding the Israel-Hamas war in recent weeks.
  • Different viewpoints have led to intense debates among students, lawmakers, and college administrators.
  • Freedom of speech advocates worry that student voices may be chilled or censored.
  • This comes as many college donors have called on institutions to break vows of neutrality on political issues.

Discourse over the latest Israel-Hamas war is playing out on college campuses across the U.S., raising fresh questions about the limits of freedom of speech.

College students and university officials have been active over the past two weeks in speaking out about the conflict, often representing very different viewpoints. Donors, meanwhile, have put increased pressure on higher education institutions to release statements condemning what many of them see as anti-Israel sentiments coming from pro-Palestine student groups.

In some instances, the result has been an attempt to censor or chill students' free speech rights.

New York University (NYU), for example, said it is investigating a student over a statement they made in an online newsletter that said, "Israel bears full responsibility" for Hamas' attack on Israel. The chancellor of the State University System of Florida, meanwhile, claimed that pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses may have crossed the line into antisemitic discrimination.

They are just two of many instances where the fresh conflict between Israel and Hamas has obscured the line between protected and unprotected speech.

BestColleges spoke with Zach Greenberg, a senior programs officer at the free speech advocacy nonprofit the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), to better understand where that line is at public institutions.

What Is Unprotected Speech on College Campuses?

The Israel-Hamas war has raised questions about what kind of political speech is acceptable and what is unprotected.

Greenberg told BestColleges the First Amendment protects the majority of speech. Few categories of speech are unprotected, and that's by design.

In his survey of pro-Palestine and pro-Hamas statements from student groups at colleges around the country, almost all would fall under protected speech, he said.

"This would all be considered political speech, which is the highest level of protected speech," Greenberg said. "It's the reason why we have the First Amendment."

One category of speech that is not protected is a true threat. This must be a targeted, specific, and immediate threat to another person or group, he explained. General statements about a country would not fit into this bucket.

"It's a high bar," he said, "and it's meant to be a high bar."

The State University System of Florida took issue with students saying that Israel should be "wiped off the map," during protests. This would likely not cross the line as a true threat because it is unspecific and does not show intent from protesters to act on the statement, Greenberg said.

State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues later called on universities to deactivate student chapters of the National Students for Justice in Palestine. Rodrigues said statements and planned protests from the chapters violate a Florida law making it illegal to “knowingly provide material support … to a designated foreign terrorist organization.”

Students are allowed to support violence, and they can even support terrorism, Greenberg said. Students cannot, however, aid in terrorist acts.

Freedom of speech protections extend to international students, he added.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican representing Arkansas, called on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deport students who support Hamas' attack on Israel. Cotton claimed in a letter to DHS that "no foreign national has a right to advocate for terrorism in the U.S."

Greenberg said, however, that as long as an international student is fully matriculated, they have the same freedom of speech rights as a U.S.-born student.

Discrimination vs. Protected Free Speech

Another sometimes-hazy line divides political speech and outright discrimination.

Federal and state laws protect individuals from being discriminated against because of characteristics like race, gender, and religion. The Israel-Hamas war raises discrimination and antisemitism concerns as Israel’s population is predominantly Jewish.

Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, also chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee, highlighted this concern in a recent statement. She called on university leaders to condemn student group statements supporting Hamas.

"As education leaders, it is our responsibility to state this clearly and to ensure that all students, including Jews, benefit from a campus environment free from discrimination and violation of their civil rights," Foxx said.

"Now is not the time for antisemitism to go unchallenged, and we will expose the despicable hatred expressed on university campuses as we work to defeat the forces arrayed against Israel and Jews across the world."

Greenberg said the First Amendment protects a person’s right to express hatred toward other groups.

"For the most part, simply expressing hatred … that would be protected by the First Amendment," he said.

The Constitution draws the line at unlawful discrimination, he said.

A university cannot treat a group of students differently due to their religion, Greenberg said. Concurrently, students cannot discriminate against other students simply for being Jewish.

Greenberg pointed to a recent example from Stanford University as likely a form of illegal discriminatory speech.

A non-faculty instructor at the university reportedly separated Israeli and Jewish students during a class and downplayed the impact of the Holocaust. Stanford later said this instructor "is not currently teaching while the university works to ascertain the facts of the situation."

Vows of Neutrality

Many colleges and universities have remained neutral throughout the past two weeks, despite overseas calls for institutions to issue forceful denouncements of student comments.

Stanford University is one such institution that condemned the attack by Hamas, but it declined to comment further on the conflict.

"We believe it is important that the university, as an institution, generally refrain from taking institutional positions on complex political or global matters that extend beyond our immediate purview," President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez said in a joint statement.

"The decision to take a position about one event or issue yields implications for silence with regard to other issues … It can enmesh universities in politics and create a sense of institutional orthodoxy that chills academic freedom."

Greenberg applauded the stance on neutrality, as doing so allows students and faculty to debate freely without feeling pressure from university leaders.

Many are not happy with the stances of neutrality.

Harvard University has been the center of conversation, particularly after over two dozen student groups penned a statement that said Israel was "entirely responsible" for the attack on civilians. President Claudine Gay later released a statement that condemned the attacks but not the students' statement.

"Let me also state, on this matter as on others, that while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership," she said.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem President Asher Cohen penned a response that said Harvard’s statement did not "meet the most minimal standards of moral leadership, courage, and commitment to truth."

"With all due respect, the world needs more than that from the lighthouse of wisdom," he wrote. "It needs you to show some moral courage, even if some members of 'one Harvard community' hold immoral positions."

He addressed a similar letter to Stanford officials, although the university has not responded.

Donors have begun to cut ties with Harvard due to this perceived inaction. The Wexner Foundation, which donated more than $2.4 million to Harvard in the 2021 fiscal year, pulled support. Israeli billionaires Idan and Batia Ofer announced they resigned from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government executive board.

Attempts to Censor, Chill Speech

Discourse has largely been able to unfold unabated across college campuses, with a few exceptions.

Greenberg said there have been instances of NYU students tearing down flyers of missing Israelis, violating free speech rights. Students have the right to hang flyers or posters with conflicting viewpoints, but they cannot censor other students.

There are also concerns with how universities have treated pro-Palestine students, he said.

NYU's aforementioned investigation into a student's anti-Israel statement is likely a violation of the student's First Amendment right, Greenberg said. Even if the university declared there was no wrongdoing, he said, launching the investigation in the first place chills not only the individual student's speech, but that of the entire student body.