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Jim Jordan
“I’m always for protecting the First Amendment, but this is not that,” Rep. Jim Jordan said of campus protests over the war in Gaza. NATHAN HOWARD/AP

Conservatives Are Worried About Campus Free Speech — But Not for Gaza Protesters

Republican lawmakers argued that the response to student protesters was justified and different from the free speech they say is being impeded for conservatives.

Not long ago, conservatives were antagonizing universities for being against free speech when students protested guest speakers associated with the right. But they see the crackdown on student demonstrations now as wholly different — and no one on the right seems concerned that the response will one day impact conservative student groups.

“I’m always for protecting the First Amendment, but this is not that,” said Rep. Jim Jordan. “This is something entirely different, and it needs to stop.”

Rep. Chip Roy said protesters disobeying rules set by universities has nothing to do with the discrimination he says impacts conservative students.

“When did you have a bunch of conservative protesters coming in with a tent brigade to take over the entire university?” he said.

Republicans have held or called for multiple hearings on alleged restrictions on free speech, suggesting universities teach liberal ideas and are hostile to conservative viewpoints. They’ve also pushed back on students who don’t want speakers with ties to the far-right, including neo-Nazis, to visit campus.

The tension has resulted in lawmakers attempting to strengthen the free speech laws governing public universities. About two dozen states have free speech laws for universities, almost all passed between 2017 and 2021, around the time protests against conservative speakers blew up.

Meanwhile — and particularly in the past month amid student protests over Israel’s actions in Gaza — they’ve made antisemitism on college campuses a key focus. On Wednesday, the House will vote on a bill that broadens the definition of antisemitism, which already has the support of many Democrats.

But some in the GOP want to see more steps taken.

“All the insurrections that are taking place on our universities? Those students who are engaged in violence, they need to be removed,” Rep. Lauren Boebert said about the protests. “If they’re here on a visa, they need to be deported. All the funding needs to be stripped at a federal level if this continues.”

Republican leadership held a press conference Tuesday to make clear they would do what they could to punish the universities that could not get protests under control.

Conservatives, including Johnson, are calling on the Columbia University president to resign. The Education and the Workforce Committee is calling in an array of campus presidents later this month to answer for their handling of protests in a hearing, and the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability is now expected to call the Metropolitan Police Department and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in for a hearing to answer for their response to the George Washington University encampment.

“We will be increasing our oversight of institutions that have received public funding and cracking down on those who are in violation of the Civil Rights Act,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Some conservatives tied their opposition to the protests to their broader feelings about universities’ “anti-American” bent.

“Everyone has a right to peacefully protest this country, but you don’t have a right to shut down a campus and to trample upon other people’s rights,” said House Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good. “This is a reflection of the anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-freedom indoctrination going on college campuses for decades, and we are reaping what we have sown.”

Other GOP lawmakers said the protests are already evidence that conservatives have it harder on university campuses.

“I think it’s pretty obvious to anybody watching that if a conservative group was advocating, let’s say that passionately, but also with damaging property, breaking the rules, the backlash would be so quick and severe,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw said. “For years and years and years, there has not been an even playing field with the ability of conservative students to speak out.”

At Columbia, more than 100 people were arrested on Tuesday after they occupied a campus building. At USC, protests became violent after counterprotesters clashed with a pro-Palestine encampment. At the University of Texas at Austin and many others, encampments were broken up by police and arrests made, with charges later dropped for some.

“These folks at Columbia University literally have been treated with kid gloves,” Rep. Andrew Clyde said Tuesday.

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.