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Biden student protests
“Violent protest is not protected. Peaceful protest is,” President Joe Biden said. Evan Vucci/AP

‘You Can’t Not Say Something’: Why Biden Gave a Surprise Speech on the Campus Protests

President Joe Biden wasn’t likely to please Republicans or the left with his remarks on campus protests, but he made them anyway.

President Joe Biden delivered surprise remarks on Thursday about campus protests after days of intense pressure from both sides of the political spectrum for the nation’s leader to do and say more.

The White House denied that his decision to speak now had anything to do with the criticism. Instead, they said he wanted to be “very clear” on where he stood — emphasizing his message that violence is not a protected form of protest and that campuses should be free of hate speech.

“When it comes to something like this, he doesn’t need to follow anyone,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One after Biden’s remarks. “It has nothing to do with following anyone’s lead. The president, if anything, has been a leader on this.”

But Biden was unmistakably under considerable pressure to speak and notably chose to add the remarks ahead of a scheduled speech about antisemitism set for next Tuesday. It’s politically fraught: Republicans have used the campus protests to go after Democrats as soft on crime and weak on condemning antisemitism. Some Democrats also wanted Biden to crack a harsher tone. Other more progressive Democrats, including young people already skeptical of Biden, were eager to see whether the president stands with the young people protesting for an end to the war in Gaza.

“There is no right answer,” a Democratic operative told NOTUS, speaking to the lack of easy solutions facing the White House.

It’s a speech some in Democratic circles felt was inevitable for Biden to make due to the prevalence of the protests and the sometimes brutal police handling of protesters and professors alike playing out across television screens and social media.

“You can’t not say something,” another Democrat told NOTUS. “It’s literally dominating mainstream media.”

Biden’s brief remarks largely focused on the need for order, even as he reiterated his support for protesters exercising their free speech.

“Dissent is essential for democracy,” he said, speaking at a podium in the Roosevelt Room. “But dissent must never lead to disorder.”

He walked the line between protecting the right to the freedom of speech and the right to peacefully protest while making clear that certain actions from protesters on college campuses would not be tolerated.

“Violent protest is not protected. Peaceful protest is. It’s against the law when violence occurs. Destroying property is not a peaceful protest. It’s against the law. Vandalism. Trespassing. Breaking windows, Shutting down campuses. Forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations. None of this is a peaceful protest,” Biden said, noting specific actions at the ongoing protests.

The president also condemned antisemitism, hate speech and discrimination, including against Arab or Palestinian Americans. And he rejected calls from Republicans to send in the National Guard to staunch protests, saying he would not support it.

“This isn’t a moment for politics,” he said during his remarks, appearing to nod at the swirling discussions. “It’s a moment for clarity.”

Briefly answering questions after his remarks, Biden said the protests have not changed his mind on his policy toward Israel and Gaza, likely a rhetorical smack in the face for pro-Palestinian supporters who have demanded Biden call for a permanent cease-fire to no avail.

If Biden hoped to quiet criticism from the right, it didn’t work. Republicans pounced on Biden’s measured tone in the immediate aftermath.

“President Biden *still* won’t forcefully condemn the Hamas mobs on campuses,” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted. “He’s terrified of them. A complete lack of leadership from an impotent president.”

While the GOP has jumped on this, it’s unclear how far it will really go.

“I have a hard time believing anyone voting will remember this in November and have it be a deciding factor,” said a second Democratic operative close to the campaign.

Jasmine Wright is a reporter at NOTUS.