After a rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses, the Biden administration unveiled plans to track online hate-related threats.
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- Antisemitic incidents on college campuses have hit the news following the onset of the Israel-Hamas war.
- The Biden administration announced plans to combat antisemitism in colleges.
- It will partner with campus law enforcement to track online hate rhetoric.
- A First Amendment expert said colleges must simultaneously balance students’ right to freedom of speech while protecting campus communities.
The Biden administration is making moves to combat an “alarming” rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war.
War erupted between Israel and the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip following an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians, sparking protests in the U.S., including on college campuses, and raising fears of increased antisemitism and Islamophobia.
The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security will work with college campus law enforcement to track and examine online hate rhetoric, according to NBC News, which first reported the plan. This includes sending federal security and cybersecurity advisors to work with schools.
The Department of Education will also make it easier for students to file a complaint of antisemitism or Islamophobia under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the White House. Title VI previously did not clearly state that it prohibits forms of antisemitism or Islamophobia.
“In the upcoming days and weeks, the administration will continue to work to combat antisemitism and all hate-fueled violence on schools and also on college campuses,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a briefing Monday.
Antisemitism, Islamophobia Incidents Increase
The Anti-Defamation League reported a nearly 400% rise in antisemitic incidents year-over-year, and anecdotal evidence indicates incidents of antisemitism on U.S. college campuses have increased since the Israel-Hamas war started.
Among the more high-profile cases, a Cornell University student was arrested Oct. 31 for allegedly threatening to kill and sexually assault Jewish students on campus, according to NPR.
“To the students at Cornell and on campuses across the country: We’re tracking these threats closely. We’re thinking of you, and we’re going to do everything we can … both
at Cornell and across the country to counter terrorism, antisemitism,” Jean-Pierre said in the press briefing.
While Biden’s plan specifically addresses antisemitism, it also takes measures to protect against Islamophobic threats, which have been rising across the country.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has received 774 complaints since Oct. 7. This is the largest number of complaints in a similar time period since 2015 when Donald Trump announced his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country.
Colleges’ Obligation to Protect Students’ Free Speech Rights
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) senior program officer Zach Greenberg told BestColleges that, as it strives to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia threats, the Biden administration needs to help campuses protect their communities while also protecting students’ rights to expression.
“The goal here is for the Biden administration to track true threats while protecting political speech,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg said that a lot of college students’ protests and expression in the past weeks would be protected by the First Amendment, including pro-Palestinian protests.
The Biden administration needs to help colleges track true threats, Greenberg said. This includes statements to bring guns to school and cause harm to classmates (if serious and specific). When students’ expression falls under political speech, they’re protected under the First Amendment.
“What happened at Cornell was a true threat. To rise to that standard … it has to be serious, immediate, and targeted,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg identified ways colleges and universities can take students’ First Amendment rights seriously at the same time:
- Clarify the distinction between true threat and political speech
- Allow equal access to protest areas
- Commit to no viewpoint discrimination — bias based on a group’s political or religious beliefs
At George Washington University, student group Students for Justice in Palestine projected “Divestment From Zionist Genocide Now” on the library wall, among other pro-Palestine slogans. According to Greenberg, this is protected speech.
It’s unclear what action the government will suggest schools take when they find an instance of hate rhetoric. Greenberg said colleges and universities need to be careful of the disciplinary action they take based on the expression, since unless it is a specific and serious threat, it will most likely be First Amendment-protected speech.