N.Y. Governor Threatens ‘Aggressive Enforcement’ for Colleges Allowing Antisemitism

Gov. Kathy Hochul's letter warned New York state college and university presidents against allowing antisemitism and
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Updated on January 16, 2024
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  • Gov. Kathy Hochul sent a letter warning college and university presidents that not disciplining students for antisemitism violates state and federal law.
  • Hochul promised "aggressive enforcement action" for institutions allowing antisemitism.
  • State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) chancellors said they'd swiftly discipline students for calling for genocide or antisemitism.
  • Free speech experts warn disciplinary action over calls for genocide could violate students' First Amendment rights.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul sent a letter Dec. 9 warning state college and university presidents that she'd withhold federal and state funds — among other disciplinary actions — for not disciplining students over antisemitism or calls for genocide.

This comes days after college presidents testified on their responses to antisemitism at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. Hochul said she was "shocked" that the presidents didn't denounce antisemitism because failing to discipline such speech, in her state, would violate New York State Human Rights Law and Title VI of the Human Rights Act.

According to Hochul's letter, State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) chancellors affirmed that antisemitism and calls for genocide violate their codes of conduct.

"I write to you to ensure that your institution applies the same standard in its code of conduct, and has a clearly defined and well publicized mechanism for individuals to report complaints," Hochul wrote. "As Governor of New York, I want to reinforce that colleges and universities not in compliance with federal and state laws protecting students against discrimination can be deemed ineligible to receive state and federal funds.

"I assure you that if any school in New York State is found to be in violation, I will activate the State's Division of Human Rights to take aggressive enforcement action and will refer possible Title VI violations to the federal government."

Free Speech Experts Respond

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) released a statement the next day, warning that vague antisemitism and calls for genocide are protected speech under the First Amendment. It's only when those calls rise to the level of true, credible, specific threats; discriminatory harassment; or incitement that colleges and universities can and should discipline students.

For example, a Cornell University student was arrested for allegedly threatening on social media to shoot up the Kosher dining hall. The student is accused of making a specific, credible threat that would warrant university action.

FIRE said the vague "calls for genocide" the governor is referring to are chants protesters use, including "intifada" and "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." However, there's debate over whether these statements actually call for killing Jewish people. Pro-Palestinian activists use these statements to support Palestine's liberation from Israel.

Because of competing claims like this, FIRE said disciplining this speech would stifle political debate over the Israel-Hamas war, which began on Oct. 7 following an attack on Israeli civilians by the militant group Hamas. Since then, some students across the country have protested Israel's air and military strikes in Gaza, which have killed over 17,700 Palestinians since Dec. 9, according to Associated Press reporting. Student-protesters sometimes condemn Zionism, or Israel's establishment of a Jewish nation state, when it forces Palestinians off their land (or kills them en masse).

This criticism of a government is protected political speech. But after the antisemitism hearing, the U.S. House of Representatives voted that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. This means that Hochul could consider even protesting against Zionism a violation of New York state law and college codes of conduct.

"Gov. Hochul cannot command colleges and universities to violate the First Amendment. Nor may she enforce state law to compel action against speech protected by the First Amendment," FIRE's statement says.

"In this fraught moment, colleges and universities must ensure student safety and well-being by taking action against violence, true threats, incitement, discriminatory harassment, and other unlawful activity. But they can and must do so without violating expressive rights. FIRE will be watching closely."