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US college protests test First Amendment limits

May 14

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Protests against Israel’s alleged genocide in Gaza have spread across university campuses around the globe. While most protests initially coalesced around anti-genocide sentiments and a shared value for human life, some critics have observed slogans, rhetoric and behavior that they claim has become more alarming over time.

Accusations have surfaced of “outside agitators” deliberately spoiling peaceful protests, and of police officers using excessive and unnecessary force against unarmed students.

Watch the video above for Straight Arrow News contributor Ruben Navarrette’s take on these events, and on how he says the limits to First Amendment freedoms fit into the wider picture.


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The following is an excerpt of the video:

The recent wave of protests at more than 200 colleges in the United States and the subsequent crackdown by police and arrest of more than 2,000 student protesters from Columbia University in the East to UCLA in the West shocked many Americans. I can only hope that it also served to educate a few of us as to the limits of free speech by spelling out what is allowed and what isn’t.

Freedom of speech, as we have been reminded by university administrators all across the country, is not a free for all. Some things are allowed, but some things are not. There are rules for radicals, and not just in the way envisioned by community activist and author Saul Alinsky. There were worrisome signs right from the beginning, in the earliest hours of the protest. It turned out to be a short walk from protests that were supposedly pro-Palestinian to words and actions that were anti-Israel, anti-U.S. and antisemitic.

When students started setting up tents, it signaled that the protesters were planning to become squatters. Soon it was feared the protesters would be receiving their mail at these makeshift encampments. And when the tents at dozens of colleges all across the country bore a striking resemblance to one another, it suggested that the protests were being coordinated, and students were being manipulated by what New York City Mayor Eric Adams called “outside agitators.”

But perhaps the most troubling sign of all was that many students, whether they were engaged in the protests or merely supported them from afar, seemed to understand the right to free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution as something of a blank check. Even civil liberties lawyers who practice this kind of law for a living will acknowledge that there are certain types of expression that the courts have ruled over the years are not covered by the First Amendment.


Have a look at how our other contributors across the political spectrum view this issue:

Dr. Rashad Richey: Today’s college protesters are tomorrow’s world leaders.

Star Parker: Left-leaning politicians too lenient with pro-Palestinian protesters.

The recent wave of protests and more than 200 colleges in the United States, and the subsequent crackdown by police and arrest of more than 2000 student protesters from Columbia University in the east, to UCLA in the West shock to many Americans, I can only hope that also served to educate a few of us as to the limits of free speech by spelling out what is allowed and what isn’t. Freedom of speech as we have been reminded by university administrators all across the country, it’s not a free for all. Some things are allowed, but some things are not. There are Rules for Radicals, and not just in the way envisioned by community activists and author Saul Alinsky. There were worrisome signs right from the beginning and the earliest hours of the protest. It turned out to be a short walk from protests that were supposedly pro Palestinian to words and actions that were anti Israel, anti us and anti semitic. When students started setting up tents, it signaled that the protesters were planning to become squatters. Soon it was feared the protesters would be receiving their mail at these makeshift encampments. And when the tents at dozens of colleges all across the country, bore a striking resemblance to one another. It suggested that the protests were being coordinated, and students were being manipulated by what New York City Mayor Eric Adams called, quote outside agitators. But perhaps the most troubling sign of all, was that many students, whether they were engaged in the protests or merely supported them from afar, seem to understand the right to free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution as something of a blank check. Even civil liberties lawyers who practice this kind of law for a living will acknowledge that there are certain types of expression that the courts have ruled over the years are not covered by the First Amendment. They include incitement to commit a crime, so called fighting words likely are intended to promote a violent response, flat out threats, obscenities, defamation, harassment, and actions intended to disrupt official proceedings like say, a college graduation. For instance, many of the demonstrators didn’t seem to understand the difference between holding a sign and taking over a building. The latter is an activism it’s anarchy. Just look at the January 6 Magga protesters. Once things escalated. At Columbia University and UCLA for instance, administrators had to go nucular and call in the cops. So what does the First Amendment say actually, it goes like this, quote, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. So this is basically a restraint on government, specifically, Congress. Over the decades, the Supreme Court has expanded the reading of that language to apply to all forms of the federal government, including the presidency, and it has expanded even further to include local and state governments. But do you know what even today isn’t specifically covered by the language of the First Amendment, a private institution like Columbia University. Now, one could argue that once Columbia’s president called him the police force for the city of New York, the supervising authority shifted from a private entity to a public one. But still, the protests were taking place on private land at the university, not public land, and they were occurring at a private institution. It’s hard to imagine this is what the framers had in mind when they wrote the words, quote, Congress shall make no law. Look, you don’t have to be a lawyer or a judge or a university president to understand the three most basic rules of public protest. Number one, there are guardrails and they need to be adhered to. Number two, with rights come responsibilities and they need to be met. Number three, and other people have rights too. They also need to be respected. So let’s worry less about raising our voices and being heard, and concentrate more on practicing decency and common courtesy.

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