Flickr/Alisdare Hickson

As Israel continues striking targets in Gaza, pro-Palestinian protests have cropped up on college campuses across the nation. Some of these protests have led to the arrest of student activists, sparking conversation about whether students have the right to protest on campus. 

Are The Tides Turning on Free Speech?

When it comes to the issue of Israel and Palestine, some on the left have used freedom of speech to defend their actions more often, while some on the right have called for protesters to be arrested

The argument from the right is that some of the protesters are threatening Jewish students. Others make the argument that they are violating the rules of the universities by protesting without permits and disrupting the educational environment. Some also point out that there is no constitutional right to free speech on private university campuses. 

While it is true that the First Amendment does not apply to private universities and businesses, those who oppose cancel culture and social media censorship by private tech companies on the principle of free speech do not seem to be extending that reasoning to private universities. 

Conversely, some of those on the left who have praised cancel culture as a tool of democracy and tech censorship as a reasonable response to the flood of misinformation—who say that the First Amendment does not apply outside of a government context—are now those claiming to have First Amendment rights on private property. For example, the protesters at Berkeley Law School who showed up at the Dean’s dinner party, hosted at his private residence, stating that they had a right to speak. 

Who Cares About Free Speech?

In recent years, the right has been more outspoken about free speech than the left. Conservatives tend to favor small government and are wary of government attempts at censorship. 

The First Amendment refers explicitly to government censorship, but many on the right use the principle of free speech to argue against censorship by other private entities as well.

For example, many on the right have used the premise of a free speech culture to argue against cancel culture, which is often enforced via mob rule and sometimes independent employers. They have also argued against Big Tech censorship, such as Twitter's initial choice to remove links to the Hunter Biden laptop story. Earlier this year, House Republicans floated a bill to protect student freedom of speech on public campuses. 

However, the right doesn’t always support free speech. Some religious and cultural conservatives have advocated for book bans, bans on teaching about race and LGBTQ issues in school, and bans on drag shows in public schools and libraries. Despite this, at least in rhetoric, the Republicans have posited themselves as the pro-freedom of speech party. 

The liberal left used to passionately defend free speech, but the rise of DEI, social justice activism, and the illiberal left, which some call “woke,” has led to a shift in values. The value of being inclusive and fighting for justice predominantly won out over free speech culture on the left: cancel culture became a more prominent tool for enforcing social norms, DEI programs and other activist causes narrowed the Overton window of acceptable language, and some on the left favor government-imposed hate speech restrictions, like those of Scotland

Case Study From Berkeley Law

When the Dean of UC Berkeley's Law School, Erwin Chemerinsky, invited third-year law students to his house for dinner in April 2024 and asked a pro-Palestine student to leave after she disrupted the dinner the student claimed her First Amendment rights were violated.

Chemerinsky himself is a prominent advocate for free speech, and earlier that month had penned an op-ed denouncing antisemitism on his campus. In response, students from Berkely’s Law Students for Justice in Palestine group hung up posters that read “NO DINNER WITH ZIONIST CHEM WHILE GAZA STARVES!”

On the night of the dinner, Malak Afaneh, co-president of Berkely’s L.S.J.P. group is seen on the steps of Chemerinsky’s backyard holding a microphone and beginning to speak about Palestine. Shortly after she begins, Chemerinsky says, “Please leave!” His wife, UC Law Professor Catherine Fisk, tries to take the microphone from the hands of Afaneh as Fisk and Chemerinsky continue to say, “You are not welcome here, please leave.” Afaneh argues that it is her constitutional right to be there. 


The viral video sparked much debate about free speech, especially since Chemerinsky is a prominent writer on the subject, but ultimately the First Amendment does not apply to someone's private residence. 

Although many on the left in the past have condemned “free speech culture” as really being an excuse for hate speech, the scene at Berkeley shows how the pro-Palestine left has used the concept to defend their own views when they are in the minority. 

Some Republican Legislators Roll Back Rhetoric on Free Speech Absolutism

Some on the right have previously argued that hate speech is free speech, but now argue that on the Israel/Palestine issue, students should face consequences for their speech. 

Republican Senate candidate Steve Garvey said the protests are “terrorism disguised as free speech.” 

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) called for President Biden to deploy the National Guard.

Right wing commentator Jack Posobiec said, “The only option now is to place all of the Ivy League under indefinite military occupation.” 

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) issued an executive order for campuses to review and update speech codes by this summer to help address instances of antisemitism and ensure pro-Palestine students are disciplined if they violate the new policies. He also said on X, “These protesters belong in jail.”

Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-TX) said, “You can’t let occupations occur on public lawns, for example, because…students, especially Jewish students…they don’t feel safe anymore…That’s not tolerable in the state of Texas.”


It should be noted that while the general trend around free speech on the left and right has shifted, some people and organizations have taken consistent stances, like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which has consistently defended free speech rights regardless of issue. 

However, in the macro scale, it seems neither the right or the left practices what they preach regarding free expression when it comes to those they disagree with. 

The death toll in Gaza is devastating. Watching the rise of antisemitism on campus is devastating. Call me naive, but I think we can protect students who are peacefully protesting on campuses, and protect Jewish students and staff from harassment, but if and only if we are willing to lay down our partisan swords and have a genuine conversation.

I have always supported a broad definition of free speech and believed that a free speech culture is essential, especially in places of learning, like college campuses. But we must go further than saying free speech is good. We must also teach young people how to wield their speech respectfully and productively with curiosity and openness toward others. 

Clare Ashcraft, Bridging & Bias Specialist at AllSides, Center bias.  

This piece was reviewed by Henry A. Brechter, AllSides Editor-in-chief (Center bias), Joseph Ratliff, AllSides Content Designer and News Editor (Lean Left bias), and Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings (Lean Right).