Texas Executive Order Aims to Curtail Antisemitic Speech at Colleges

Free speech advocacy groups worry the order may restrict protected speech.
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Published on April 3, 2024
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  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order directing colleges and universities to review and update their free speech policies.
  • This comes as a response to a reported rise in antisemitic harassment in the state.
  • Free speech advocates are concerned that the order's language may restrict protected speech and stifle open debate.
  • The executive order names two pro-Palestine student groups as potential violators of free speech policies.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order March 27 directing colleges and universities to "review and update" free speech policies in light of a "sharp rise" in antisemitic acts.

Colleges and universities that are part of the state's higher education system have 90 days to adhere to this executive order. Speech advocacy groups, however, caution that the order's language may encourage institutions to stifle student speech protected by the First Amendment.

This is the latest in a string of actions state governments have taken following the latest Israel-Hamas war.

"Across the country, acts of antisemitism have grown in number, size, and danger to the Jewish community since Hamas' deadly attack on October 7th," Abbott said in a statement.

"Many Texas colleges and universities … acted quickly to condemn antisemitism, but some radical organizations on our campuses engaged in acts that have no place in Texas. Now, we must work to ensure that our college campuses are safe spaces for members of the Jewish community."

Specifically, the executive order calls on colleges and universities to:

  • Update free speech policies to "address" the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts
  • Establish appropriate punishments, including expulsion
  • Ensure free speech policies are being enforced
  • Include Texas' definition of antisemitism in university free speech policies as a guide for students, faculty, and administrators

The executive order explicitly names the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine as student groups that universities should discipline for violating free speech policies.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) said this executive order relies on a definition of antisemitism that encroaches on protected political speech, including criticism of Israel.

"State-mandated campus censorship violates the First Amendment and will not effectively answer antisemitism. By chilling campus speech, the executive order threatens to sabotage the transformative power of debate and discussion," FIRE said in a statement.

"When speech on contentious issues is subject to punishment, minds cannot be changed."

The Israel-Hamas war sparked intense debate regarding college students' free speech rights. The line between protected speech and harassment can often appear blurry, but FIRE has cautioned institutions against overcorrecting and banning protected speech.

FIRE's statement added that public colleges and universities were already required to address antisemitic harassment before this executive order.

A proposed law in Florida similarly takes aim at student speech. The bill, if passed, would cause students to lose access to state and institutional financial aid if they are found to "promote a foreign terrorist organization," including Hamas.