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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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Israel-Palestine war divides campuses, tests free speech

“You want to improve the conversation,” President Michael Fitts said. “Both positively and calling out speech that is hurtful and hateful, and shouldn’t be uttered.” (Andrew Balestrery)

In a flash, the cries engulfed campuses. 

War in the Middle East has unleashed anguish and protest among American college students. Some champion Israel. Others plea to free Palestine. They wave signs, wear flags and hurl chants across police lines. 

For more than a month, their standoffs have become so tense that at times, they turn hateful. 

The outcry has thrust colleges and universities into the center of new debate on the limits of free speech. And student calls have forced campus leaders to confront tough questions of how to protect open dialogue — even as students face stark rises in antisemitism and Islamophobia around the country. 

“Can we ensure that you’re not going to be subjected to hateful speech?” Tulane University President Michael Fitts said in an interview this week. “No, we can’t. But we want to create an environment where it doesn’t happen.” 

Violence at other schools has raised the stakes. Authorities charged a Cornell University senior last month in connection to online posts that threatened a mass shooting at the school’s Jewish center and kosher dining hall. At Cooper Union in New York, Jewish students had to lock themselves in a library as Palestinian protestors pointed and banged against the building’s glass walls. And Palestine supporters assaulted several Tulane students at a rally last month after a student grabbed an Israeli flag that one man tried to burn. 

Palestinian groups, too, say fears are stifling their speech more than ever. They have reported a wave of backlash, including cases of people fired from jobs after speaking out for Palestine, professors facing calls for removal over their views and reports of protestors chanting “death to Arabs.” 

“It’s always sad when someone is not comfortable being their full selves,” Ron Gubitz, executive director of Tulane Hillel, said. “That is a decision that many Jewish folks, and I imagine many Muslim folks are also feeling right now.”

Already, some students have fallen silent in the face of hostility. They refuse to talk to journalists. They feel at risk wearing Stars of David. They wear masks to rallies, nervous of being recognized. 

Free speech groups say it is dangerous to fear open dialogue. They are warning universities not to play favorites, which they say would make opposing students afraid to speak. 

“They fear that they will be ostracized,” Zachary Greenberg, a senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said. “They fear punishment from the administration. There’s a lot of pressure to conform, and to not say anything controversial or offensive, despite your free speech right to do so.” 

Fitts said Tulane will take three steps to preserve free speech and also protect students from hate. He hopes to create a campus of peaceful dialogue, possibly by hosting panels or educational lectures that teach calm debate skills. He said speech that is hateful must be called out. And he said the school will hold anyone who grows violent accountable. 

“You want to improve the conversation,” he said, “both positively and calling out speech that is hurtful and hateful, and shouldn’t be uttered.”

NBC News turned its cameras on Tulane last month for a story on campus tensions. But so far, Tulane has avoided the harshest clashes.

At Harvard University last month, a billboard truck broadcast names and faces of students who blamed Israel after Hamas invaded and murdered 1,400 Israelis, including many civilians. Another truck drove through Columbia University, with faces labeled “Columbia’s leading antisemites.”

Brandeis University said Monday it would ban the school’s chapter of National Students for Justice in Palestine because of the group’s support for Hamas terrorists. That decision followed a similar effort in Florida’s state universities. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, denounced both actions. 

Tulane Students For Palestine has said its members face verbal threats, retaliation and intimidation for their beliefs. It said at a rally last month, students yelled “What is Palestine?” and “Go back to Gaza.” The group declined to comment further this week. 

“Our peaceful protest—which featured Muslim and Arab students sharing their experiences of discrimination and harm on campus, Jewish students sharing how they had been ostracized by speaking on how Zionism is not antisemitism, and a diverse crowd of attendees—was met with jeers, taunts, and scorn from Tulane students across the street, garbed in Israeli and IDF flags,” the group wrote in a press release last month. 

Where do schools draw the line?

Only when the First Amendment says so, Greenberg said. It offers narrow exceptions to free speech, including true threats, harassment and obscenity, which universities can punish. But because hate speech can be subjective, he said universities should play no role in regulating it. 

“There’s always going to be people who believe things and say things that are wrong and offensive and hateful,” Greenberg said. “We can counter that with our own speech, with more speech, not censorship or violence.”

Some major institutions disagree. The Anti-Defamation League sent a letter last month to the leaders of almost 200 colleges and universities asking them to investigate chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine over possible support of a terrorist organization in violation of state and federal law. The group said a quarter of the campus anti-Israel protests it has observed so far include “expressions that support terrorism.” And on Tuesday, the Biden administration warned colleges to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia and protect students from harassment that interferes with education. 

The ADL shares the same worries Palestinian groups do about the suffering of innocent people, South Central Regional Director Lindsay Baach Friedmann said in an email. “But when people fail to acknowledge the pain experienced by innocent Israelis and Jewish people, when they act as if the October terrorist attack which started this war never happened, when they call for the destruction of Israel rather than a peaceful resolution, we see a problem.”

Gubitz, from Hillel, said reactions at Tulane have varied widely. Some students are vocal, on the streets and on social media. Others have turned inward and chosen not to speak up when class talk turns to current events. 

The divisions have even hit dorm rooms. Gubitz said some students have displayed flags in their rooms and returned home to see a roommate’s opposing one. And parents and students both tell him they remain vigilant. 

“The world feels like it’s changed,” he said. 

Professors are also feeling the heat. A Cornell professor is on leave after he called Hamas surprise attacks on Israeli civilians “exhilarating.” At Columbia, professors clashed over whether to support Palestinian student groups or condemn them. 

“We give great deference to faculty,” Fitts said, but professors still have an obligation to preserve classroom peace. In the classroom, he said, “It’s not a free speech issue. It’s an academic freedom issue.”

It has all taken place in a climate that free speech groups say silences some views in favor of the loudest voices. 

Everything Tulane does is intended to protect students and preserve open conversation, Fitts said. “The question is, how do you put some guardrails around that? How do you make sure it’s positive and doesn’t spin out of control?”

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