The Republican presidential candidates who participated in Wednesday’s debate spent significant time bashing pro-Palestinian student activists and threatening their free speech rights.
The only notable exception was Vivek Ramaswamy, who criticized students for taking the side of Hamas over Israel but clarified that he would not restrict their right to do so.
“We don’t quash this with censorship because that creates a worse underbelly,” said Ramaswamy. “We quell it through leadership by calling it out.”
To that end, Ramaswamy specifically called out rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis for their willingness to punish offensive speech. DeSantis recently gave the order to shut down National Students for Justice in Palestine on two Florida campuses, a move that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression called “dangerous—and unconstitutional.”
Ramaswamy has previously warned conservatives against wielding cancel culture against anti-Israel voices; he opposed the professional blacklisting of Harvard students who had signed an odious petition laying all blame for Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel itself, asserting that “it’s not productive for companies to blacklist kids for being members of student groups that make dumb political statements on campus.”
The other candidates—DeSantis, Haley, Tim Scott, and Chris Christie—took the opposite view. Each of them vowed to root out antisemitic speech on campus by deporting the students who make such utterances.
“To all the students on visas who are encouraging Jewish genocide, I would deport you,” said Scott.
DeSantis sounded every bit like a progressive student himself, cynically weaponizing feelings of discomfort against the First Amendment.
“Their kids do not feel safe,” said DeSantis, referring to the children of Jewish parents.
Haley agreed, saying that “no person should ever feel in danger.”
College administrators and law enforcement officers already have sufficient authority to respond to legitimate threats of violence against all students. But they do not have the right to curtail offensive speech about Israel, no matter how ill-conceived the underlying views may be. In any case, giving authority figures more power to eliminate controversial speech would be a disaster for conservatives, since bureaucrats on campuses and in the federal government often have progressive leanings.
Ramaswamy cautioned that conservatives who challenge school board leaders or express vaccine skepticism could lose their free speech rights under such a paradigm. He was correct to do so. It is not enough to oppose cancel culture only when your own side is under siege.