update deskSchools & Higher Education

‘Order must prevail,’ Biden says in first address on anti-Israel campus protests

The U.S. president said that “peaceful” protests are protected free speech, but “violent” ones aren’t.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on March 7, 2024. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on March 7, 2024. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.

U.S. President Joe Biden will protect both free speech and the rule of law, he said on Thursday in his first formal remarks about ongoing anti-Israel encampments on college campuses.

“We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent. The American people are heard,” Biden said in a three-minute speech. “In fact, peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues. But neither are we a lawless country.”

“We’re a civil society, and order must prevail,” he said.

White House spokesmen previously issued statements condemning violence and antisemitism, but Biden’s only previous public statement about the protests was a brief interaction with reporters in April. He condemned both “the antisemitic protests” and “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Since that comment on April 22, the situation on college campuses across the country has escalated dramatically, with anti-Israel student protesters barricading themselves in a Columbia University academic building and a university staff member claiming that he was held “hostage.”

At the University of California, Los Angeles on Wednesday night, police arrested more than 130 people after days of confrontations among anti-Israel protesters, counter-demonstrators and the police that at times turned violent.

Biden drew a clear line on Thursday between First Amendment-protected free speech and the violence, vandalism and intimidation of Jewish and pro-Israel students on dozens of American college campuses.

“Violent protest is not protected. Peaceful protest is,” Biden said. “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations. None of this is a peaceful protest. Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest.”

“There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos,” the president added.

Biden also said there was “no place in America for antisemitism or threats of violence against Jewish students” and condemned “Islamophobia or discrimination against Arab-Americans or Palestinian-Americans.”

“As president, I will always defend free speech, and I will always be just as strong standing up for the rule of law,” Biden said.

Biden took two brief questions from the press after his remarks, replying simply, “No,” when asked if the protests had made him reconsider any of his Middle East policies or whether the National Guard should be called in to deal with the protest encampments.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said that Biden’s remarks were “meager.”

“President Biden and college administrators are operating from the exact same playbook. Instead of taking a stand against antisemitic encampments and other incidents engulfing college campuses, all they do is parrot the same tired platitudes,” Foxx stated.

“Jewish students deserve meaningful actions, not just empty words,” she added. “Those should include directing the Education Department to make Title VI investigations of these campuses and consequences for any violations found a top priority.”

Foxx added that she expects to hear “concrete plans” from Miguel Cardona, the U.S. education secretary, when he testifies next week.

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