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House Republicans display anger at university leaders following pro-Palestinian protests

UCLA president says balance between protecting students and allowing free speech is "not always easy to achieve."
Gene Block
Campus Protests The Reckoning
Posted at 6:11 AM, May 23, 2024

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block was among those testifying Thursday before the House Education and the Workforce Committee in response to recent pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses.

Block testified alongside Northwestern University President Michael Schill, Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway and Phi Beta Kappa Society CEO Frederick M. Lawrence. House Republicans say the protests spewed antisemitism and caused chaos on college campuses. 

"In the months following Oct. 7, radicalized students have harassed, assaulted and intimidated their Jewish peers," Committee Chair Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, said in prepared remarks. "These antisemitic protests have led to hijacking buildings, erecting unlawful encampments, disrupting classrooms and canceling commencements. They have been the principal agents of anti-Jewish harassment and violence and have made an absolute mockery of so-called university leaders."

While the House has held similar committee hearings in the past, those have primarily focused on Ivy League and private universities. Two of the three college leaders invited to Thursday's hearing represent public universities. Given the First Amendment, what those universities can do to stop protests is more limited. 

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Democrats on the committee argued that the hearings had not produced any meaningful discussion on how to combat antisemitism.

"Here we are, for the fifth time in six months, holding another hearing to complain about the problem of antisemitism, but no work is being done to find a meaningful solution to address animus on college campuses. Complaining about a problem is not a solution. It certainly riles people up, generates a lot of media coverage, but it does not solve anything," said Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott, D-Virginia.

Scott added that students on public college campuses have a right to demonstrate.

"At public colleges and universities, two of which are with us today, the First Amendment protects both popular and agreeable speech and speech that people can reasonably disagree with, including, sometimes, hateful words. But again, in painting with a broad brush, the majority has attempted to remove any distinction between hate speech and genuine political protest," he said.

Block noted these challenges in a statement to the committee.

"As a public university, UCLA is subject to a dual legal mandate: We have a legal obligation under the First Amendment to protect free speech on campus, as well as a legal obligation under federal law to protect students from discrimination and harassment. This balance is not always easy to achieve," Block said.

UCLA has been the site of clashes between police and protesters. Earlier this month, the university announced numerous policy changes. Among the changes, the university's police department now more directly answers to Block. The policy changes came after police advanced on an encampment occupied by pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

On Wednesday, UCLA reassigned Police Chief John Thomas following the protests. 

The protests have primarily been in opposition to Israel's military offensive in Gaza, which has led to hunger and displacement for many Palestinians living there. The offensive is a direct response to the deadly terrorist attack leveled by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. 

Protests on college campuses have called on universities to cut support for businesses and interests tied to Israel. Some, however, have alleged that protests have spewed antisemitism. 

Block has said many of the protesters and counterprotesters at UCLA have been peaceful in their activism, but "the tactics of others have frankly been shocking and shameful."

Block added that the protests hampered the university's ability to educate students, and many on campus, especially Jewish students, felt unsafe.

March and Rally Los Angeles, a group that backs the pro-Palestinian protests, said it erected encampments on UCLA's campus, claiming supporters of Israel tried to hurt demonstrators. 

Meanwhile, Rutgers leaders took a different approach, forming a settlement with protesters. The agreement noted that students and staff involved in protests would not face sanctions; however, students would still be subject to the Code of Student Conduct, which prohibits acts of bias, harassment or discrimination.

Foxx challenged Schill and Holloway for reaching agreements with demonstrators.

"Each of you should be ashamed of your decisions that allowed antisemitic encampments to endanger Jewish students. Mr. Schill and Dr. Holloway, you should be doubly ashamed for capitulating to the antisemitic rulebreakers," Foxx said.