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Abbott Arrests Protesters After Championing Free Speech on College Campuses

Some free speech is freer than others in Texas. Four years after he signed a law enshrining greater protections for free speech in Texas College Campuses, Governor Greg Abbott is cracking down on protestors of the Israeli-Hamas War.

The protests are part of a wave taking place at colleges and universities across the country. Students and activists have camped out on campuses, including the University of Texas, demanding an end to Israel’s military actions in Gaza, which have killed thousands of people.

Unfortunately, there have been significant examples of antisemitism at such protests. Several Jewish students at UT said they were targeted with chants of “from the river to the sea,” which many Jews interpret as calling for the eradication of Israel, as well as calls to “go back to Germany.”

Antisemitism is the excuse Abbott has used to send the Department of Public Safety in to arrest protestors. Nearly three dozen students were arrested last week, with police pushing back crowds with their batons. More protesters were driven off campus with mounted police and riot cops. Some observers say police kneeled on protesters’ backs or punched them in the face.

Abbott cheered the police on Twitter.

“Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled,” he said on Wednesday.

His quick efforts to shut down the protests come in sharp contrast to his attitudes toward campus free speech four years ago. In 2019, he signed Senate Bill 19, which would prohibit university administration from prohibiting many demonstrations or uninviting speakers. The bill came during a time when there was fervent backlash against some conservative speakers on college campuses, many of whom would spout white nationalist, antisemitic, and anti-LGBT views. This was seen as a grave danger by Abbott and other top Texas Republicans, who felt those speakers should be allowed to say their piece even if it was hate speech.

“Some colleges are banning free speech in college campuses,” he said in a 2019 video, wagging his finger disapprovingly. “Well, no more. First amendment guarantees it. Now, it’s law in Texas.”

The reasons why Abbott would shift his views on free speech on college campuses are murky. On one hand, sending in police to shut down college students engaged in a protest plays well with the conservative base, most of whom support Israel in the current war. It could be argued that the modern conservative movement in America was born off the back of Governor Ronald Reagan cracking down on anti-war demonstrations at University of California, Berkeley, so Abbott is following a proud tradition.

The more likely explanation is simply that Abbott cares only about certain kinds of free speech, and opposition to one side of a war he supports is not one of those. While the desire to shut down a simmering cauldron of antisemitism is laudable, it’s hardly in keeping with the principles he lectured Texans about four years ago.

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.

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