Frat parties with offensive themes are swiftly punished. But publicly contemplate murdering Zionists? That’s different. Abigail Shrier for The Free Press.
Pro-Palestinian protesters rally outside the Fordham University Lincoln Center campus where a group had established an encampment inside a building on May 01, 2024 in New York City. (Spencer Platt via Getty Images)

Abigail Shrier: There Are Two Sets of Rules for Speech

Frat parties with offensive themes are swiftly punished. But publicly contemplate murdering Zionists? That’s a different story.

A police officer who pulls over speeding black motorists—and only black motorists—isn’t protecting “law and order.” He’s engaging in invidious discrimination. So too the university administrators who suddenly discover they are free speech absolutists only when student protesters call for the death of their Jewish classmates.

In January, a junior at Columbia University, Khymani James, told a disciplinary committee at the school that Zionists “don’t deserve to live.” “Be grateful that I’m just not going out and murdering Zionists,” he instructed them. Then, James headed back to campus, scot-free. (If he hadn’t also posted a recording of the meeting to his social media site, discovered four months later, there might never have been any repercussions at all.)

It was the sort of stunt a star quarterback for the football team could have gotten away with a generation or two ago, when college coaches might have been eager to sweep sexual assault allegations under the rug. Or the son of a major donor to the university. James apparently enjoys a level of privilege every bit as sacrosanct: as a leader of the pro-Palestinian encampment at an Ivy League school, he could threaten Jewish students at his pleasure, university codes of conduct be damned.

If there was ever doubt whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates Columbia’s code of conduct, on April 23, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked four Columbia University professors and administrators this explicitly. Every one of them said: “Yes, it does.” As for the encampments, they violate Columbia’s Rules of University Conduct, disruptive behavior standards, university policy regarding “tenting,” disciplinary rules against “vandalism/damage to property,” unauthorized “access/egress” rules as well as Columbia’s policy against harassment, according to a Notice to Encampment circulated by the university.

In the last two weeks, self-proclaimed pro-Palestinian protesters have set up encampments at dozens of American universities. Heedless of university restrictions against intimidation and harassment, they demonstrate where, when, and how they like. They cry “Go back to Poland,” “baby killers,” and “globalize the Intifada” at Jewish students. They wave the flags of designated terrorist groups, like Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and hold up signs that beckon “Al-Qasam’s Next Targets,” with an arrow pointing at Jewish counterprotesters. (Al-Qassam is the wing of Hamas that carried out the October 7 massacre.)

On campuses that have—for a decade or more—repeated ad nauseam that priority one was the creation of a “safe, inclusive, supportive, and fair” community, the pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Hezbollah flags, wear Hamas headbands, and conceal their faces with masks. They ignore all time, place, and manner restrictions on student demonstrations set by their schools, and refuse all demands from the universities to take down their tents or to move their protests elsewhere. And at Columbia, until April 30, when protesters took over Columbia’s Hamilton Hall and the NYPD was at last called in, they almost got away with it. 

At UCLA, protesters blocked students from entering the library during the midterms, asking those who wished to enter: “Are you a Zionist?” After a Jewish girl was reportedly beaten unconscious by pro-Palestinian protesters, pro-Israel counterprotesters at UCLA arrived in masks and hoodies, shooting off fireworks, firing tear gas, and throwing objects at the pro-Hamas protesters and attempting to physically destroy the encampments. Only then did UCLA call in the police to remove the encampments.

Instead of immediately suspending the pro-Hamas protesters for breaking university rules, for weeks, university administrations instead chose to “negotiate” with the rule-breakers. At Columbia, the administration offered to review its policy on “socially responsible investing” (read: divesting from the world’s only Jewish state), and offered to “make investments in health and education in Gaza.” At Brown, the administration promised protesters that they would put divestment from Israel on the agenda. At Northwestern, the administration meekly tossed rewards, including the promise to establish a full-ride scholarship for Palestinian students and guaranteed faculty jobs for Palestinian academics. 

At Columbia, protesters rejected the offers, knowing they had the upper hand. When police arrived to break up the encampments, Columbia faculty in orange vests linked arms to form a human wall against the police, shielding the rule-breakers. 

Faculty of Columbia University link arms to protect students inside threatened with suspension if they refused to voluntarily dismantle the pro-Palestine encampment on campus by 2 pm on April 29, 2024. (Alex Kent via Getty Images)

The lengths administrators have gone to placate, encourage, and embolden the pro-Hamas protesters in the past weeks provide a signal reminder that there are at least two sets of rules governing elite universities today: one for the favored, protected class; the other for everyone else. And in case anyone has any doubt which category Jewish students fall into, the unwillingness of universities to enforce their own codes of conduct against pro-Hamas protesters in the months since October 7 should disabuse them.

Consider how racist speech (or even racially insensitive speech) has been received on virtually any major American campus for decades. 

In 2017, an anonymous jerk put flyers up around American University’s campus. The flyers displayed a Confederate flag, a stem of raw cotton, and read “Huzzah for Dixie” and the like.

American University immediately launched into emergency response mode, treating the flyers as a criminal threat. It published CCTV video and solicited help from the public in identifying the man who posted the flyers. An all points bulletin called “CRIME ALERT” went out for the man’s arrest. The New York Times covered the incident; the words “free speech” do not appear once in the article. Instead, it approvingly noted that in a previous incident—when bananas were found hanging from nooses around campus—the FBI had been called to investigate. 

Nor could I find any evidence of any free speech organization rushing to defend the man who posted the flyers—nor the racist provocateurs in any of dozens of similar incidents. No prominent “free speech absolutists” appear to have considered the expressive value of “Huzzah for Dixie” worth defending. Nor did pundits claim that inviting law enforcement to investigate such acts of hate—i.e., “calling the police on your own students”—was in any sense inappropriate or disproportionate. In almost every single case—at schools like Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Michigan State, University of Florida, Duke, and American University—where a symbolic noose was discovered on a campus, it was treated as a criminal threat, never as speech. 

After the Huzzah for Dixie flyers were found, the president of American University quickly issued a statement: “I ask you to join me in standing together and show that we will not be intimidated. AU will respond strongly to attempts designed to harm and create fear,” she wrote. “When one of us is attacked, all of us are attacked.”

Today, in the face of months of bloodthirsty cries aimed at Jewish students (“globalize the Intifada”), university presidents line up to assure the protesters of their right to free speech. 

In the abstract, if “Huzzah for Dixie” is worth the full mobilization of university resources and law enforcement, then waving the flag of a terrorist group, or writing “burn you filthy zio” to a student chat, or telling Jewish students to “go back to Poland” where millions of Jews were murdered in gas chambers, or pulling down the American flag over a statue of John Harvard and replacing it with the Palestinian flag, or painting “Ziosgetfuckt” on UPenn’s statue of Ben Franklin, or calling Jews “Hitler’s children”—all insults hurled at Jews on campus—are at least as menacing. 

But in practice, the two types of incidents—rather, the two targets of the incidents—are treated entirely differently. Punishment is meted out swiftly and mercilessly, and with no consideration for free speech principles, any time Confederate flag flyers are posted, any time students hold culturally insensitive themed frat parties, any time colleges uncover student use of the N-word while in high school (or even a word in Mandarin that sounds like the N-word), or even when students or faculty make the familiar conservative argument that affirmative action sets black students up to fail. Rinse and repeat and repeat.

Speech on college campuses has been stultifyingly narrow—and very far from free—for decades. That pro-Hamas students cheer freely for “intifada” doesn’t make it any freer now. The fact that certain students are allowed to call for the death of their Jewish classmates does not herald a new era of free expression. It only underscores that some bigotries enjoy the official sanction of these schools, and are accepted, tolerated, and rewarded with special dispensations and, indeed, goodies.

Use of the N-word on campus or misgendering a classmate will no doubt be met with as swift punitive consequences as they have been for decades, as have a vast and more minute array of “microaggressions.” I invite anyone who doubts this to parade through any of our elite campuses with insulting cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. 

After weeks of violent, destructive protest, which left campuses trashed and buildings damaged and graffitied, administrators have at last begun to enforce their own rules and call in the police. Perhaps they felt they had no choice: commencement ceremonies loom and lawsuits, recently filed by Jewish students, are on the way. 

But watch the marble carefully as university administrators spin the cups. When a favored group is attacked, they discover a “community safety” concern with remarkable alacrity. When it’s a disfavored group, suddenly the cup reveals “free expression.” The game is fixed, and the administrators show their hands. “Community safety,” or was it “free speech”? Surprise! They don’t believe in either. 

Abigail Shrier is the New York Times bestselling author of Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up

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