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‘Limit and censor’: Texas’ recent executive order raises concerns among experts, activists

Students gathered outside the Starbucks in the Student Center South to protest the University’s support for Israel in December. | Raphael Fernandez/The Cougar

Editor’s note: The article has been updated with a statement from the University.

As the conflict in Gaza continues, university campuses across the globe are reeling with the effects of the international conflict. 

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order instructing state universities to revise their free speech policies to address what his office calls a rise in the “acts of antisemitism in institutions of higher education.”

“Texas supports free speech, especially on university campuses, but that freedom comes with responsibilities for both students and the institutions themselves,” the executive order stated. 

The executive order singled out pro-Palestine student organizations, namely the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine, and said that the organizations should be disciplined for violating these policies. Expulsion from colleges should be considered appropriate punishment for violations, Abbott said. 

Despite this, the University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine HTX will not stop advocating for Palestine’s liberation, said SJP representative and art history graduate student Frances, who chose to withhold their last name due to fear of retaliation. 

“We will not secede to these repression and fear tactics as we understand that the movement for the liberation of Palestine is far greater than any fear tactics that the governor could employ,” Frances said. 

According to Frances, students across the state have raised their voices in support of Palestine’s liberation and support the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement and the executive order is a way to crack down on these very voices.

“This executive order is an attack on the free speech rights, on the grounds of Palestine. It is not an attack on free speech rights for only the sake of free speech,” Frances said. “But it is an attack on free speech because of the material change that is coming out of students that are calling for BDS in regard to Palestine.”

In an Instagram post, SJP HTX asked students to participate in a mass email campaign to UH and South Texas College of Law administrators, urging them to protect the students right to assembly and speech on campuses. In addition to that, they asked that students continue to show solidarity with the movement.   

While Abbott’s claim that free speech “comes with responsibilities,” is all good and well, the executive order seeks to limit the power of pro-Palestine  groups on campus, according to Middle Eastern studies program director Emran El-Badawi. 

“In reality the executive order seeks to both limit and censor speech on campus, especially with respect to speech that draws attention to the ongoing massacre of Palestinians by Israel in its war on Gaza,” El-Badawi said.

The executive order requires all public state universities to update their free speech policies to address antisemitic speech and establish appropriate punishments, including expulsion. In addition, it mandates that these policies are enforced and include the definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, said assistant political science professor Michael Kistner. 

“While the executive order named two Palestinian student orgs specifically — Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine, stating that they should be disciplined for violating policies. What this means in practice for Palestinian student orgs depends on what changes the universities themselves choose to make and how they enforce them,” Kistner said. 

Abbott has always been a strong supporter of Israel, he even traveled to Israel in November to show Texas’s support for the country. The state has anti-boycott laws that prohibit state agencies and government entities from contracting with businesses that boycott Israel. 

In a statement, Abbott said that the executive order will ensure that college campuses are “safe spaces for the Jewish community.” The latest memorandum also came close to a year after the state dismantled university’s diversity, equity and inclusion offices with anti-DEI laws. 

“The latest executive order takes place in a larger context where conservative politicians and legislatures are attacking the identity and ideas of the younger generation of students and so called ‘liberal-minded’ professors, including in matters such as race, gender and tenure,” El-Badawi said.

Abbott has not commented on if and how the state will protect pro-Palestine students, who have received increased threats of harassment and threats since the war started. 

According to the memorandum, the University Board of Regents has 90 days to report their revised speech and disciplinary policies to the state. 

The University is aware of the Governor’s executive order and will add additional language as necessary to our policies to comply with Executive Order GA-44, however, nothing changes right now said university spokesperson Bryan Luhn. 

“Our commitment to free speech and free expression is not changing: We are committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged,” Luhn said. “The University recognizes and supports the constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. The University encourages all who engage in expressive activity to do so safely and in a manner that respects the rights of others with differing opinions.”

Despite the push back from the state, SJP said they will keep pushing forward with their demands for justice, equality and freedom in Palestine and their BDS campaign on campus

“Especially considering the fact that this executive order comes during an ongoing genocide. We will not allow this executive order to freeze our actions because we understand that our campaign for freedom, justice and equality for Palestine is something that cannot secede to any pressure tactics by the state,” Frances said. 

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