And free speech isn't optional.

Today's edition is a Friday edition where I'm sharing a personal opinion piece.

I know I just got done saying we shouldn't give the campus protests more attention than they deserve, and I still think that is true. The actions and decision making of Israel's war cabinet, Hamas, and President Joe Biden are far more important and deserve much more scrutiny. But the protests have escalated in the past week, spreading to new campuses and prompting an aggressive law enforcement response. Today, I want to explore two particular narratives about the protests that I think are interesting and genuinely important.

Protesters aren't always right

One frustrating piece of commentary I'm seeing so much it has basically become a meme is the idea that these protesters must be right because past protesters were right. I've seen some iteration of this take literally dozens of times in dozens of different places already, but the gist is this: When state power confronts protesters, the protesters are always the good guys. The Civil Rights protesters were right, the anti-Vietnam protesters were right, and the Iraq War protesters were right; so if you don’t support the college kids in the present, you’ll end up on the wrong side of history in the future. The leftist writer Will Bunch summed this view up very neatly:

This is an example of selection bias. It’s a tidy narrative that only feels true because it’s easier to remember all the protest movements that were obviously just in retrospect and eventually achieved some of their core goals. We all learn about the Vietnam, the Iraq War, and the Civil Rights Movement protests because they were successful; but not every protest has been.

Plenty of protests have failed, either because they were totally ineffective or their causes were misguided. Noah Smith pointed out that "America half a century ago had plenty of protesters whom most Americans would regard as unreasonable today. Anti-nuclear protests, protests in favor of population control, the Weathermen’s 'Days of Rage', and many other leftist protests of the time look misguided or just plain stupid in retrospect — and that’s to say nothing of right-wing protests that were happening at the same time. We tend to remember the successful movements, like the Vietnam War protests or the Civil Rights marches, and forget about the ones that failed."

He's the only person I've seen who has pointed this out, but he didn't even touch another example that was much more recent: The Defund the Police movement. That caught traction, especially among young Americans, after the death of George Floyd. And in places where it succeeded, communities and politicians have almost unanimously reversed course and will probably never go back. For those of us who had serious questions about it, it’s hard not to feel vindicated.

We may not remember, but the 2010s were marked by dozens of protest movements across the globe that effectively achieved the complete opposite of what they set out to do.

Author Vincent Bevins documented some of those movements in a recent book. Among his examples were a leftist uprising in Brazil that led to the election of a radical right-wing leader, an anti-government movement in Hong Kong that led to more control from Beijing, and a protester-led movement to replace dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt that, instead of fulfilling the dreams of a secular Egypt, led to the Muslim Brotherhood winning elections and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, an even more brutal dictator, taking over.

To be perfectly clear: If the goal of the current protest movements we are watching in the U.S. is simply a call for a ceasefire, I would agree that they are probably on the right side of history. I have personally called for a ceasefire several times in the newsletter, and in several different ways. I am horrified by what is happening in Gaza and am totally convinced that the current Israeli government has failed in every imaginable way. I have been very, very worried about Israel's actions since the days after Hamas's attack. I think — probably! — in 20 or 50 years we'll look back on these protests and think they were more on the "right" side of history than the wrong side. I suspect I have a decent bit of common ground with some of these protesters and how they view this war and Israel’s current government. 

Unfortunately, the goal of many of these protests is not just a call for a ceasefire. From the beginning, the central goal of the protest at Columbia has been to get the university to divest from Israeli companies (as part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction — or BDS — movement). I’ve said before that I don’t agree with the BDS movement, but I think it’s a smart exercise of political power.

In this case, though, I think college endowments are a poor target. Schools like Columbia have very small investments in Israeli companies, unless you expand the definition to include companies that do business in Israel. But once you do that, you’re going to end up demanding divestment from companies like Google, Toyota, and McDonald’s — as protesters at the University of Michigan have. These demands, if heeded, would do serious damage to the profitability of an endowment without exerting any actual pressure on Israel. So protesting university investments might be good for getting numbers to their protests, but are pretty poor for creating a unified stance against the most direct targets.

Now we’re seeing that lack of unified messaging very clearly. Some protesters are calling for an end to the state of Israel, an eminently unreasonable and maximalist position that I suppose would resolve the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, but only by displacing millions of Israelis. Others are calling for bombing Tel Aviv. Some are using the war in Gaza as an entry point to a call for defunding public safety officers on their campuses and, in Columbia’s case, reparations for black residents of Harlem. 

Some, I’m sure, are there for entirely non-political reasons. In one video from protests at NYU, a young woman is asked about what her main goal for the protest is and what NYU is doing that drew her out there. “I really don’t know,” she says, looking at her friend. “Do you know what NYU is doing? Why are we here? Why are we protesting?”

The video went viral for obvious reasons and it’s easy to make fun of the girl; but she is probably like a lot of people at these protests. They’re showing up a) because they are broadly antiwar or b) because there is something very communal and interesting about protesting. When I was in college, there was a G7 meeting in Pittsburgh. Most of the campus showed up to “protest”, including me, though a lot of us just went to run around, see the spectacle, and blow off steam. Some of my friends even got arrested.

On the whole, this protest movement isn't particularly unified in its messaging, so whether they are "right" or "wrong" is tough to delineate. But what I really want to drive home is this: We shouldn’t assume that a major protest movement — especially one made up largely of young people — is going to age well just because some in the past have. It's ahistorical nonsense.

Free speech is not optional

A bigger story than the wave of antiwar college students, which is not an especially new phenomenon in our country, is the excessive brutalization of those students by police and the resounding indifference (or outright support) to this response from fair-weather free-speech fans.

Free speech is a core value of a free society. Students who want to gather in public places and chant political slogans or wave Palestinian flags or call for an end to the war have an absolute right to do that. Schools can and should make certain policies to ensure protests don’t disrupt the normal functioning of their campuses, so long as those rules are not excessive. Free speech also has limits: If a student protest is so threatening that another student might reasonably fear coming onto campus, then that student’s rights have now been violated. On the whole, though, I don’t think that’s what we have here. These student protests are far more peaceful than the student movements of the 1960s, and even some of the worst videos I’ve seen have been of people saying offensive things, not doing anything violent (like, say, bombing a building).  

And yet, colleges across the country are countering protesters with armed police as if the protests were violent. At UCLA, police showed up and made things decidedly worse. So did "pro-Israel" protesters, who threw fireworks and pieces of metal into pro-Palestine encampments, successfully instigating all-out fights. And that’s not speculation: That pattern is being documented in videos across the country.

In 2019, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told Texans that some colleges are banning free speech on college campuses. Well, no more. Because I’m about to sign a law that protects free speech on college campuses in Texas. Shouldn’t have to do it. First Amendment guarantees it.” 

Five years later, Abbott allowed the president at the University of Texas at Austin to call in a mounted, multi-agency force to crack down on protesters who were planning study breaks, art workshops, and guest speakers. Last week, the Austin Police Department and Texas state troopers performed an hours-long, excessively violent crackdown on the protesters, which resulted in 57 arrests (including a journalist from a local Fox affiliate), then came back for more this week.

Unlike the Columbia protesters who had broken into and occupied a building, Texas students were not breaking any rules. UT President Jay Hartzell actually said openly that his justification for sending in riot police was not to respond to any rule breaking but because he believed that rules were going to be broken at some point in the future.

"The group that led this protest stated it was going to violate Institutional Rules. Our rules matter, and they will be enforced,” Hartzell said.

And, for the record, all of the charges against UT students have been dropped — which is not surprising, since none of them were actually committing crimes. What did free speech warrior Greg Abbott have to say about it? "These protesters belong in jail."

The crackdown at the University of Texas is just one of many instances of excessive police response to campus protests. One professor at Washington University in St. Louis was hospitalized after police broke nine of his ribs and his hand. One UCLA student was reportedly shot in the face with a rubber bullet. At the University of Arizona, officers in riot gear and gas masks fired "non-lethal" chemical munitions at protesters. At the University of Wisconsin, officers armed with riot batons shoved protesters to the ground and hit people in the head with their shields. At City College of New York, officers reportedly shoved and forced protesters to the ground while making 282 arrests. Yesterday, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office confirmed that an NYPD police officer fired their gun (accidentally, according to initial reports) inside Columbia’s Hamilton Hall while they were working to clear protesters. 

To be clear, this genre of response is not the only option available to universities or police departments. At Brown University, the president made a deal with protesters to break up encampments in exchange for a vote on divestment. No police, no violence, no major news stories about campus chaos. 

At the University of Pennsylvania, a few minutes from my house, the school tried to call in the local police department to clear out encampments. But Philadelphia police did the right thing: They declined to come help until the school could prove its situation was actually dangerous. The Philadelphia police have much better things to do than forcefully remove a bunch of students from a campus that they pay to be on. As of now, the school hasn’t proven the protests are dangerous, so police haven’t shown up; and you haven’t seen Penn on the 6 o’clock news. That’s not a coincidence. 

Again: There is a lot of low-hanging fruit to make fun of these protesters. From the PhD student demanding "humanitarian aid" for students who have locked themselves in a building to the Columbia students demanding finals be canceled, I've seen a lot of cringey stuff.

But my larger point is that all across the country I'm seeing overt hypocrisy and an utter lack of spine on free speech issues. And my concern is not just that police are violently clearing out protesters doing the most vanilla, basic kinds of demonstrations; it’s that none of the free speech warriors seem to mind.

I also get deeply uncomfortable when free speech pushback is done supposedly for my benefit, as part of a fight against antisemitism. Recently, the House passed the "Antisemitism Awareness Act" (who would vote against that?), which will make it easier to file civil rights lawsuits over speech

The legislation uses the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to define antisemitism: "Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews," the definition says. Got that? All you have to do to avoid running afoul of the law is avoid expressing a “certain perception” of Jews. I guess we’ll find out what that means when the lawsuits start, but based on examples in the bill the legislation appears to already be conflating antisemitism with anti-Israel sentiment. One part actually prohibits “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”  

It's hard to overstate how nutty this is. One can disagree with the sentiment that the state of Israel is a racist endeavor (I do!) while also seeing how terrifying it is that legislators are trying to criminalize critical speech of another country under the guise of fighting antisemitism. All, again, in response to student protests on college campuses. The bill’s definitions are so vague and its checks on speech are so restrictive that Jewish Democrats like Sara Jacobs and Jerry Nadler are unified in opposition to it with people like the conservative blogger Matt Walsh

This story — of how politicians, police, and presidents of colleges are responding to a protest movement — strikes me as far more unsettling than the movement itself.

Remember what's important

In the midst of reading an article about Columbia students occupying Hamilton Hall, an alert popped up on my phone that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just vowed to raid Rafah "with or without" a hostage deal.

When this war began, Israel was hoping to extricate Hamas from northern Gaza. Many people believed  that Israel’s military actions would stay contained there. But as Gazans evacuated south (and members of Hamas fled), Israel's army has followed them, and now Netanyahu is signaling there is nothing — no deal for the hostages or ceasefire promise — that is going to stop him from a final invasion of a city where hundreds of thousands of Gazans are now sheltering and starving.

The U.S. has said it opposes a Rafah invasion unless Israel presents a plan for how it's going to ensure the safety of the 1.5 million people sheltering there. The U.S. is still openly opposed to any invasion, so we can presume they haven't heard enough to be convinced Israel is going to avoid a large civilian death toll. The United Nations, meanwhile, is warning that any invasion could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. This is, or should be, pretty horrifying to everyone watching what is going on.

The current deal being negotiated, which Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. have helped broker, would include the release of dozens of hostages in exchange for a six-week halt in fighting. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel would also be released, including some serving long sentences for violent acts. It's unclear who is holding the deal up: Hamas may be seeking an armistice, not a ceasefire, and Netanyahu's public comments certainly don’t signal cooperation on his part. I don’t like details of the deal, but it stops the bloodshed and gets the hostages home. Hamas should accept the deal if they want to protect the people they claim to represent, and Israel should be willing to take the deal if Hamas gets on board. 

These high-level negotiations, not students demanding their meal passes work in occupied dining halls, are what we should all be focused on.

A closing thought.

Finally, as I said a couple weeks ago, writing about this conflict has been one of the more difficult tasks of my career in journalism. I know many of you have strong feelings, so please: Don't unsubscribe or send an email filled with personal insults if something I said frustrates you. Instead, write in to make your case, and I'll do my best to hear it with an open mind (and potentially even share it with our readers). And if you enjoyed the piece, feel free to say that too. You can reply to this email or write to me at — and you can always say “thanks” to the team by dropping something in our tip jar.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.