Watch CBS News

Several GOP presidential candidates vow to punish colleges, students protesting against Israel or for Hamas

Several Republican presidential candidates say they'd punish university students who demonstrate against Israel or in support of Hamas, the militant group governing Palestinians on the Gaza strip. Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.

Multiple GOP candidates say they'd take punitive action, including canceling visas for international students who demonstrate in support of Hamas, or even more broadly, "anti-American and antisemitic foreigners at our colleges."

But the candidates have not offered details about how or whether they would distinguish international students who express support for the Palestinian people from those they claim have links to Hamas. Nor have they said what mechanism would be used to revoke student visas. 

After Hamas' attack on Israel on Oct. 7, students across the country initiated protests on college campuses, advocating for both Israelis and Palestinians. These demonstrations have captured national attention and have also drawn the focus of GOP candidates who say they're concerned about a rise in antisemitism.

Closing Students for Justice in Palestine chapters

One of the groups organizing demonstrations is Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a national organization that says it supports an independent Palestinian state. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), "Numerous SJP chapters released inflammatory statements in support of Palestinians seizing control of Israeli territory, including some which explicitly endorse the use of violence and attacks on civilians." 

The ADL said that the national branch of SJP called for a "Day of Resistance" on October 12 and pointed to a "Day of Resistance Toolkit" in which "SJP made clear that it advocates for Hamas or other Palestinian forces to conquer all of Israel, and for the 'complete liberation' of Israel and the full influx of Palestinians to Israeli land."  

SJP said in its toolkit that its goal is to "normalize the resistance." 

"In the eyes of the West, there is no 'right' way for Palestinians to fight for their freedom. Every tactic is met with repression," SJP writes. "The occupation, the day to day and the existence of Israel is not peaceful; there is no 'maintaining the peace' with a violent settler state." 

Brandeis University shut down SJP after it planned a vigil for "martyrs in Gaza." The university president said in a Boston Globe editorial, "Universities cannot stop hate speech, but they can stop paying for it."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pushed back on the Anti Defamation league's assumption that SJP materially aligns with Hamas. 

"The ADL's article is a collection of baseless smears intended to circumvent students' rights to freedom of speech and association," SJP said in a statement to CBS News.

Meanwhile, in a memorandum to Florida colleges and universities vowing to protect Jewish students, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis requested the shut down of SJP chapters at two colleges, citing Florida's material support law, which says it's a felony "to provide material support or resources to Hamas, or any designated foreign terrorist organization." 

"Based on the National SJP's support of terrorism, in consultation with Governor DeSantis, the student chapters must be deactivated," Florida State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues wrote. "These two student chapters may form another organization that complies with Florida state statutes and university policies. The two institutions should grant these two chapters a waiver for the fall deadlines, should reapplication take place."

The University of Florida SJP chapter said in a statement the move from DeSantis "continues to disrespect" freedom of speech. 

DeSantis said at a campaign event last month that Palestinians in Gaza "are all antisemitic."

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is one of the few candidates defending the free-speech rights of students. He called DeSantis' vow to close university SJP chapters "a shameful political ploy" that violates the First Amendment.

"It is not a First Amendment issue. That's a material support to terrorism issue," DeSantis responded on "Meet the Press." But he has also not offered evidence these students are directly financially supporting Hamas. 

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last Friday, Ramaswamy refuted DeSantis' claim these groups are providing "material support." 

"By associating with a movement halfway around the world, a student group doesn't transform itself into an arm of a terrorist organization—particularly when there is no evidence that any of its members have ever spoken with Hamas, much less provided money or supplies," Ramaswamy wrote.  

In an event at Dartmouth earlier this month, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie noted that students are under "scrutiny" for how they are responding to the war. 

"Free speech is not free if you have to worry about participating in public discourse," he said. 

Foreign student visa revocation threat

DeSantis claimed SJP student members "linked themselves to Hamas in a way that takes them out of First Amendment activity," citing the "Day of Resistance" toolkit. "Palestinian students in exile are part of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement." 

"You don't have a right to come here to this country at all as a foreigner. It's what we decide you do," DeSantis said in New Hampshire last month. "You don't have a right to a student visa. That's what we decide."

Student visas can be revoked if the individual is "part of a political, social, or other group that endorses or espouses terrorist activity," according to the U.S. Department of State. 

Former President Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, said in Iowa last month, "We will revoke the student visas of radical anti-American and antisemitic foreigners at our colleges and universities." 

While he was president, Trump, according to the New York Times, canceled U.S. visas for as many as 3,000 students from China in 2020, accusing them of having ties to the People's Liberation Army through their home universities. Depending on the university they attended in China, students had their visas revoked or denied under Presidential Proclamation 10043. 

University students in Illinois sued to overturn the ban, but the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration policy, and the students' lawsuit was unsuccessful. U.S. consular offices still deny visas for Chinese students depending on their home university. 

However, legal experts say a participation in recent protests would run afoul of the First Amendment. 

"There is extremely strong protection from the First Amendment for students to gather together," said Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney for the Council on Islamic American Relations.

Generally, public universities are required to protect First Amendment rights because they are government entities. Private universities may have a little more latitude to impose some restrictions, but most, because they receive federal funding, are also expected to protect free speech. 

Jessie Hill, a constitutional law professor at Case Western Reserve University, suggests that students who hold visas and are involved in anti-Israel protests would be safeguarded by the First Amendment and unlikely to lose their visas.

"I suspect that this is not going to ultimately go anywhere. I think it's the kind of thing politicians like to say, and they don't expect that they will actually succeed in carrying it out," Hill said.

While in Concord, New Hampshire, earlier this month to file for the state's primary, DeSantis was criticizing pro-Palestinian protests in the country as a "real sickness in our society" when a man yelled, "It's called free speech."

"Yeah, you can have different views, of course you can," DeSantis told reporters. "But what would prompt someone to support an organization that was beheading infants?"

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told Fox News she supports publishing the names of protesters who are supporting Hamas as a warning to warn their future employers. But she has not suggested that support for Palestinians is akin to support for Hamas. "There are so many of these people who want to be free from this terrorist rule," she said on CNN's "State of the Union," about Palestinians in Gaza. "They want to be free from all of that. And America has always been sympathetic to the fact that you can separate civilians from terrorists."

Not all of the Republican presidential candidates explicitly differentiate between students who support Palistinians and students who support Hamas.

Sen. Tim Scott has called for students involved in protests against Israel's conflict with Hamas to be "expelled" from their institutions, and says individuals holding visas should be "deported."

"Any time you actually encourage for the genocide, the elimination of an entire race of people, anytime you support terrorism and encourage murder, there should be consequences," Scott said. 

Questioned about his support for Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands, Scott has said that Israel's directive for Palestinians in the area to evacuate was sufficient.

Pell grants

Scott has suggested withdrawing federal Pell grants from universities that fail to address antisemitism on campus in relation to the protests. The grants are meant to make college more affordable for college students who have great financial need.

"We cannot be surprised when we allow for this behavior to continue to spread like a cancer," Scott said in a recent interview on Fox News. "Now we see ourselves with foreign students on college campuses and our own students joining together, calling for Jewish genocide. They're actually advocating for mass murder and they're encouraging terrorism."

Taking action in the Senate, Scott proposed a bill on Oct. 18 that would cut federal funding from colleges failing to condemn the demonstrations.

In a press release the next day, Scott accused Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University as hotbeds of antisemitism.

"Those universities and colleges that will not hold them accountable should lose their Pell Grant funding," the presidential candidate declared. 

Some experts suggest that the proposal is likely to falter.

"Where [legislators] are trying to retaliate against speech they disagree with, that makes it more of an acute First Amendment problem and would probably result in some sort of litigation," said Andrew Geronimo, the director of the First Amendment clinic at Case Western Reserve University.

"I wouldn't really like the government's chances in that kind of litigation," Geronimo added.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.