State responses to student protests fall along red vs. blue lines

Pro-Palestinian protesters on college campuses are getting very different responses from elected officials in red and blue states.

Texas is seeing pushback after immediately responding to a peaceful demonstration with arrests, and Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has threatened expulsion for students who engage in unsanctioned activism, while New York has made clear the National Guard will not be called in as authorities negotiate with the flagship Columbia University encampment.

“In general, officials are dispersing these camps before they can form more forcefully in red states than in blue states, but I think it’s a reflection of the political climate on these campuses and decisions of the leaders of those universities,” said Jay Greene, senior research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Political pressure is high as the governors want to appear in control of the anti-war in Gaza protests that have rocked universities across the country since last week and seen bipartisan condemnation due to some antisemitic incidents.

“At places like Columbia and Yale, Hamas protesters rule the roost, and the universities are too weak and scared to do anything — even as these mobs harass Jewish students and faculty,” DeSantis said in a post on the social platform X. “If you try that at a Florida university, you are going to be expelled.”

The University of Florida told students they could be suspended and banished from campus for three years for violating rules regarding protest conduct, local outlet CL Tampa reported Friday.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) sent state police to the University of Texas at Austin to arrest more than 50 students Wednesday, saying on X, “These protesters belong in jail. Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas. Period.”

A Texas prosecutor, however, said the day after the arrests that she would not be moving forward with any charges as there were “deficiencies in the probable cause affidavits.”

While governors have no direct authority to hand down punishments to students on campus, the political leverage they have over schools is significant.

“Governor Abbott and Governor DeSantis are saying some very tough things, and they can’t directly do them, but they can influence the decisions of campus leaders — at public universities in particular,” Greene said.

If schools don’t respond in ways deemed appropriate by state lawmakers, the politicians have tools to punish them.

“There are long-term ways of influencing public universities including the appointment of the Board of Trustees, who then in turn hire the leadership of the of these universities,” Greene said.

He pointed out how DeSantis already used this option against New College of Florida “to ensure that the universities are in sync with the political priorities of the state.”

And of course states can also cut funding for public colleges.

“And if [the schools] thought that there was any danger of that happening, they might take action,” Greene said.

The gulf in response between blue and red states comes from differing political priorities, experts say. Republicans, who are less sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in general, want to appear firmly in control of the situation.

“That is a concerning difference. I think that there is a much more sort of set of standards for protecting free speech and basic human rights in the blue states,” said Kaivan Shroff, senior adviser to the Institute for Education and a Democratic political strategist.

The encampments began in blue states New York and Massachusetts, where Columbia, New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first saw students protesting for Palestine.

While Columbia originally brought in the police to respond to the protests, officials have since been in negotiations with student leaders to try to resolve the demonstration without the use of force.

“I don’t think it’s necessary at this time, but if the NYPD calls and says they need help, we’re always there for them,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told reporters when asked about Republican calls for Columbia to see a National Guard reponse, local outlet City & State New York reported.

After more than 90 people were arrested at the University of Southern California (USC), Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said he wants to “maintain people’s right to protest and, at the same time, do that peacefully, without any hate.”

“I just want to avoid a lot of what we are seeing in other parts of the country and so we’re very mindful and diligent in terms of how to approach this in an appropriate way,” Newsom said.

In an attempt to avoid further conflict, USC has canceled its main graduation ceremony due to safety concerns after first nixing the planned speech of its pro-Palestinian valedictorian.

In Texas, Abbott has faced backlash for his response, with opponents and some free speech advocates calling him a hypocrite for cracking down on the protesters.

The governor signed a law back in 2019 to protect free speech on campus, but in March he issued an executive order telling schools to revise their free speech policies to put in harsher punishments against antisemitism.

“I do think that we’re seeing even less tolerance from more conservative folks on this issue, which is somewhat ironic, especially I mean, obviously, Governor Abbott specifically signed a bill allowing for student protests on campus, and is now cracking down in this incredibly aggressive, over-reactive way,” Shroff said. “And it’s very clear that what the speech is is what matters to him. And so that’s not free speech, and that’s obviously a double standard.”

Republicans have justified a more aggressive approache by saying it is an appropriate reaction to the antisemitism that has risen on college campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Sohali Vaddula, communications director for College Democrats of America, said club presidents around the country have told her much of the violence and antisemitism in the demonstrations have come from groups not affiliated with the students.

But there have been a few instances with students, including a protest leader at Columbia previously saying in January that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” He has since walked back those remarks.

While Vaddula said schools should not tolerate any hate speech and have sent clear messages against antisemitism, “they have not shown the same support for those facing Islamophobia.”

And some claim Republicans are only putting the pressure on colleges to address antisemitism because it can help advance other goals.

“I think it’s some of these red states they’d love to see this crisis escalate” because they see it as a “problem for Biden or they view it as a political win,” Shroff said.

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