May 17, 2024 - News

Abbott, UT sued over pro-Palestinian protest arrests

Illustration of a megaphone with a cork in it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A Muslim advocacy group is suing Gov. Greg Abbott and leaders at the University of Texas System and University of Houston over dozens of recent arrests at pro-Palestinian campus protests.

Why it matters: The protests have exposed a rift between students and faculty arguing in favor of free speech rights and the governing boards of the universities, who are appointed by Abbott.

The big picture: Universities across the U.S. have differed in their responses to protesters who have called for their administrations to divest from companies with ties to Israel, saying the country's assault on Gaza is genocide.

  • Many protests have been met with strong police presence and arrests. Some university leaders have allowed commencement speakers to talk about the movement in their speeches.

The latest: Israeli air and ground forces have killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians. The war began more than seven months ago after Hamas militants raided Israel, killing 1,200 Israelis and taking more than 200 people hostage.

Catch up quick: Abbott's Executive Order GA-44, issued in March, directs universities to update their free speech policies to stiffen penalties for antisemitic speech and ensure that "groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine are disciplined for violating these policies."

  • The Council on American-Islamic Relations — CAIR — says the order violates the First Amendment's freedom of speech protections.

Zoom in: While most North Texas universities have allowed protests, UT Dallas shut down a pro-Palestinian encampment earlier this month. Around 20 protesters were arrested on criminal trespassing charges.

  • Over 50 people were taken into custody at UT Austin just days prior.
  • Two University of Houston students were arrested at a protest encampment.

State of play: CAIR says it filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Houston and UT Dallas, and Democratic Socialists of America.

  • "Abbott's use of overwhelming police force against peaceful protestors on campuses reflects Abbott's resolve to suppress a viewpoint about Israel and Palestine with which he disagrees," the lawsuit alleges.

The other side: Abbott's office told Austin's FOX7 that "Texas will always stand with Israel and our Jewish neighbors here at home and across the world."

Between the lines: In contention is the phrase "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," which protesters say calls for equality for Palestinians and isn't a criticism of Jewish people.

  • The movement's critics, including Abbott, say they believe the phrase is antisemitic because it denies Israel's right to exist.

Meanwhile: Demands to divest from Israel are likely to fail in Texas, which has strong business and political ties to the country.

  • A nonprofit company manages $74.6 billion in assets for the UT and Texas A&M systems. The investments include companies that produce weapons and ammunition that go to Israel.
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