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Stories from across Connecticut that contextualize the frustration, confusion, and hurt related to free speech and expression on campus.

What counts as hate speech on CT campuses is hotly debated. But hate speech itself isn’t illegal.

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
Mark Schiefelbein/AP
Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

Higher education in Connecticut and across the country is facing mounting tensions regarding free speech protections on campus.

Protections of speech and expression in both public and private institutions are much the same as they are in the public sphere, but can feel more complicated when under the domain of a college’s administration, according to students. Part one of this series outlines some students’ experiences working with their admin to share their perspectives.

In the past two months, the voices heard at sit-ins, marches, and vigils have been called into question. One student’s call for support is another student’s perceived condemnation.

The narrative that hate speech on campus is growing is becoming more prevalent – to the point that presidents of major universities have been called in for questioning in Congress for allegedly allowing antisemitic speech on campus. The president of the University of Pennsylvania has resigned.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently sent a letter to public colleges and universities on campus warning of swift disciplinary action should schools not denounce “calls for genocide of the Jewish people on their college campuses.”

Students protest at Yale University.
Tashroom Ahsan
Students protest at Yale University.

In response, some legal experts say that just because speech might cause someone to feel offended, it doesn’t mean it’s illegal — students are within their rights to share their thoughts.

“What is commonly referred to as hate speech is not illegal unto itself. Hate speech is a very broad, compendious category that may include a speech that is merely offensive and reprehensible,” said Richard Wilson, the founding director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut.

“It only becomes illegal under usually two situations. One, where there is a true threat to an individual…” Wilson said.

The ACLU defines a ‘true threat’ as one that is reasonably perceived as threatening — so, language that’s considered threatening by more people than just the individual feeling threatened — and also made with the intention to threaten.

He continued, “And two, incitement to violence, where that violence is both imminent and likely.”

But these definitions themselves can feel murky. Wilson explained that in order for these conditions to be applied, they must be viewed through the eyes of a "reasonable person."

“We all have to strive for that and move away from this highly polarized environment, where individuals are locked in their own subjective universe to try and reach out and say, ‘Okay, what does the situation look like from 10,000 feet?’”

That, in the context of any college community that feels embroiled in a dispute over ideology, might seem unlikely.

Speech that isn’t illegal, but still feels charged

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed a resolution Tuesday demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The resolution was adopted with 151 countries voting in favor and 10 against, with 23 abstentions.

Shelly Altman is Jewish, and a founder of New Haven’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter. Jewish Voice for Peace is a national organization led by Jewish people who are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Altman said he regularly works with students who are looking to demonstrate both at their schools and in the community.

He offered his perspective on why some Jewish students consider protest statements not only offensive, but genuinely threatening, and how it can be difficult to “zoom out,” as Wilson suggests.

“There’s no question that there’s antisemitism in our country — no question about it,” he said.

At the same time, Altman said he feels that speech in favor of Palestinian freedom is not the same thing as speech that is antisemitic. But he understands that some Jewish students feel that way.

Altman grew up in Brooklyn attending Hebrew school. He shared that there, he didn’t learn that there were differing opinions on Israel and Palestine; he didn't even know there was any conflict.

“In the last year I came upon my workbook from when I was training for my Bar Mitzvah,” he shared. “And it had a section about the creation of the state of Israel, and about what to say about Arabs.”

Altman read out a prompt from the workbook:

“‘Other Arabs occasionally attacked Jewish settlements because…’ and then a space to put my answer. And in my own handwriting, is: ‘they wanted to rob the Jews and become rich.’”

“It was pretty derogatory. [It] was what I was being taught.”

The workbook is dated four months before his Bar Mitzvah.

Because of his own experiences, Altman said that though he can’t speak for all Jewish students on college campuses, he understands how some of them might be feeling.

“I know what that feels like. I never knew that there was a Palestine until I was an adult,” he continued.

“Students [face] people, you know, chanting in their universities, 'free, free Palestine!' And it feels like an attack on this land that they've been taught to love their entire upbringing. And so they don't feel safe. And I don't blame them. Because in their world, they're not safe.”

Altman added, “Their Jewish education has not prepared them to understand that there are many perspectives on the relationship between Israel and Palestine.”

Students from the organization Yale Jews for Ceasefire travel to the sidewalk in front of President Peter Salovey's home on campus to light a menorah outside in celebration of the fifth night of Hanukkah and to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Reese Jacobs Neal
Students from the organization Yale Jews for Ceasefire travel to the sidewalk in front of President Peter Salovey's home on campus to light a menorah outside in celebration of the fifth night of Hanukkah and to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

John is one of those students. He’s an undergraduate at Yale University, and is a Hasidic Jew. He’s using a pseudonym to protect his identity. He said he hasn’t been a part of organizing demonstrations in support of Israel — or Israeli hostages — on campus. He has attended a pro-Palestinian rally as a counter-demonstrator, which was which was referenced in part one of this series.

He said he believes multiple chants at demonstrations in favor of Palestine should not be “permitted or allowed on campuses across the board,” because he believes that rhetoric used for demonstrations are, “calling for a genocide against the Jewish people in the land of Israel, [and] the removal of Jews from the land of Israel.”

But student groups on campus using the slogan say that it really means the opposite: a joint statement from multiple student organizations, including the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee and Harvard Jews for Palestine, said the charge that the phrase calls for violence is a "silencing tactic".

“The phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ is not a call for division, expulsion, or violence but for solidarity and equality for all people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,” the statement said.

“We reject that this phrase is genocidal. We are against all forms of genocide and expulsion — that is exactly why we organize for this cause.”

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” has become especially divisive in the U.S.; Congress even censured Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the country’s only Palestinian-American representative, for using the phrase on the House floor.

Experts say the phrase first gained momentum in the 1960s among a fractured Palestinian population hoping to break free from the rule — not only of the Israeli government but also those of Jordan and Egypt. The usage was not connected to genocide.

According to the American Jewish Committee, it wasn’t until anti-Israel militant groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hamas, began to use the phrase that it became associated with violence.

The statement from student groups at Harvard writes that students use the phrase, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” to call for the solidarity and equality of all — not for genocide.

Those who contest the phrase believe the opposite, and use that belief as grounds to ban the phrase from being used in demonstrations at schools. But legal experts say that argument alone isn’t supported by legal precedent.

“Solely advocating for genocide or for violence can never justify punishing speech,” said Nadine Strossen, a law professor emeritus at New York Law School and the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“The term genocide is slung around by partisans on all sides of conflicts, including this one. People who advocate in favor of Israeli Defense Forces retaliatory measures in Gaza are also being accused of advocating genocide. And that's appropriate in our democratic system.” 

“It is important, on issues of public concern, to err in favor of over-protecting even incendiary inflammatory rhetoric, but can have many other interpretations as well,” Strossen said.

Like Wilson explained in defining the legality of hate speech on its own, Strossen said that if someone does feel threatened by the use of the chant during a demonstration, it isn’t their own feelings that determine whether they have a legal case. “It’s whether or not a reasonable person in that student’s position would determine that they are in danger,” she said.

But disruptive speech is not allowed

Strossen explained that there are very specific cases in which the phrases used in these protests are punishable. For example, if they’re chanted in a classroom during class, the demonstration impedes on a student’s ability to learn.

“No matter what your perspective is, you may not disrupt a class,” she said. Schools are allowed to place a “time, place, and manner” restriction on speech. “No matter what your message is, no matter what your perspective is, you may not disrupt the functioning of administrative buildings or of libraries.”

But, she said, if students at a public university (or private university voluntarily abiding by the First Amendment) are in a space like a lawn or courtyard holding a demonstration, not blocking any entryways or disrupting education around them, they’re free to use the major phrases being debated without repercussions.

Strossen’s legal expertise stretches back decades — she became the president of the ACLU in 1991 and kept the position until 2008. But she was also a professor, and interacted with students regularly. Developmentally, she thinks it’s better for young people to face instances of heavy disagreement in college before entering a world where they have fewer protections, and often, fewer resources.

“[Students] are going to be subject to very upsetting language in the real world, and trying to shield them from uncomfortable, traumatizing ideas and expression is actually going to do them more harm than good,” she said.

“You're disabling them from developing the habits of mind that are needed to rise above and surmount these kinds of stresses that all of us are going to be subject to for the rest of our lives in our pluralistic, contentious, deliberative democracy.”

“Democracy requires us to be uncomfortable,” Richard Wilson said. “We could live in an authoritarian state that simply prohibits everything, and we might be comfortable. But it would be a state where our voice counted for nothing.”
Richard Wilson, Chair of the University of Connecticut's Human Rights Institute

Some students say they can feel the discomfort of their peers around them as they protest. But rather than leaning into the feeling of anxiety or confusion during a demonstration by creating dialogue, they say classmates avoid their gaze.

Jenna Rabah is the president of UConn’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. She’s also Palestinian, and her entire extended family lives in Gaza. She shared her frustrations in her peers’ perceived unwillingness to be uncomfortable.

“It's awful hearing [students] complain about feeling uncomfortable walking by a protest,” she said. “We're out there trying to be heard. This is an existential life and death thing for us. We're not protesting to cause disruption, or to scare or harm anyone. We're out here advocating for ourselves. This is my identity as a Palestinian.”

Students on campus of all affiliations are facing increased discomfort. Some feel increased levels of fear. But some advocates of free speech say that more than ever, now is the time for students to listen and learn from one another. And even with heightened tensions, they believe it’s possible – and lies in the hands of students.

Part three of this series looks at how experts say colleges and students can foster a space for dialogue.

Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.