The Gaza Conflict Dilemma: Academic Freedom and the Complex Tapestry of Free Speech in American Universities

By Samantha Orozco

In recent days, Harvard’s President, Claudine Gay, resigned amidst an antisemitism scandal. Contrary to expectations, her resignation was not prompted by allegations of antisemitism at the renowned institution but by accusations of plagiarism. While such accusations warrant the resignation and removal of an academic in such a pivotal role, it is crucial not to overlook the controversy surrounding her decision to step down and the pressure exerted by members of the US Congress and Harvard’s Jewish Community.

Gay, alongside other esteemed university presidents such as Liz Maguill of the University of Pennsylvania (who also resigned) and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faced scrutiny following allegations of antisemitism and potential endorsement of university authorities. This situation preceded a hearing initiated by the US Congress Republican Party to investigate “their actions to curb and penalize antisemitism in their respective universities.” [1]

The inquiries and pressure directed at these university presidents are just the tip of the iceberg in the attempt to stifle freedom of speech in American universities. For instance, Columbia University prohibited participation in demonstrations supporting either Palestine or Israel. While this initially suppressed the two main student groups, the resolution backfired as students organized protests and formed over 40 student groups to continue expressing support for their causes.[2] Another example is the decision by Ron DeSantis, Governor of the State of Florida, to declare all pro-Palestinian groups in state universities illegal and compel their closure.[3]

The situation unfolding in American universities and the congressional approach to the matter threatens academic freedom and the right to freedom of speech. This is exacerbated by the fact that this precedent could set an example nationwide, where a pro-Palestinian liberation movement emerges without the intention of promoting hate speech but instead creating discomfort for those with differing views. On the other hand, the concern lies in the unequal treatment of hate speech incidents, mainly when directed against Palestinian or Muslim students.

“Anti-zionism is Antisemitism”?

The initial misstep in defining the boundaries of tolerance for expressions of support for the Palestinian movement occurred with the congressional resolution that equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. [3] This sets a dangerous precedent, as many anti-Zionist movements advocate for a ceasefire in Gaza or criticize Israel’s military actions without promoting hatred or discrimination against Jews. Since October 7, several pro-Israel motions have been endorsed by Congress, reflecting widespread support for Israel among most US legislators during its offensive in Gaza, resulting in the tragic deaths of over 16,000 Palestinians.[4]

The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism definitions has led to the interpretation of any form of support for Palestinians as acts of antisemitism. University presidents faced questioning on this matter, often relying on context to address inquiries. Their responses were often hesitant, not firmly stating whether certain behaviours are antisemitic or not, emphasizing the importance of context. In an environment where pro-Palestinian expressions are perceived as universally antisemitic, nuanced responses are challenging to provide, leading to the coerced cessation of pro-Palestine protests by university students.

Determining whether specific expressions may be considered antisemitic requires a case-by-case analysis, potentially placing such behaviours outside the protection scope of the right to freedom of speech. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) asserts that everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, making expressions of support for Palestinians a fundamental exercise of this right. Striking a balance between freedom of speech and the prevention of hate speech is essential, though international human rights law lacks a formal definition of “hate speech.” Instead, most United Nations instruments refer to “incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.”[5]

Limitations on freedom of speech under international law aim to reconcile two fundamental principles. On one hand, the principle of equality and non-discrimination ensures the equal enjoyment of human rights, protection under the law, and dignity without discrimination. On the other hand, the right to freedom of opinion and expression safeguards the right to hold opinions without interference and to express, seek, receive, and impart information and ideas across all mediums and without borders. [6] Advocating for the implementation of drastic measures that quash any expression of support for Palestinians is a misguided approach in the pursuit of a shared objective, which ideally should be peace and the safeguarding of human dignity, irrespective of individual perspectives on the Gaza conflict.

American citizens pro-Palestinian protest in front of Israel Consulate – by Hossam el-Hamalawy on Flickr

The challenge for academy and university students

An intriguing aspect to ponder is the state of academia when contentious issues arise, potentially jeopardizing even professional positions. Will contributions to the analysis of the Conflict in Gaza, particularly from academics at renowned American universities, be tainted and stifled by the fear of being branded as antisemitic?

While advocating for the punishment of hate speech, incitement to Violence, or genocide against any involved groups in the conflict is commendable, the challenge lies in striking a balance that preserves academic freedom. This concept, rooted in medieval European universities,[6] encompasses the freedom of teachers and students to engage in teaching, studying, and research without undue interference or constraints from law, institutional regulations, or public pressures. Its fundamental tenets include teachers’ freedom to explore subjects of intellectual concern, present findings without censorship, and teach in a professionally appropriate manner.

Students can study relevant subjects, form conclusions independently, and express their opinions. Advocates argue that the justification for academic freedom is not solely for the comfort of educators and students but for societal benefits.[7] A society thrives when the educational process fosters knowledge advancement, and such progress is best achieved when inquiry remains free from state, institutional, or special-interest group restraints. In that sense, more than trying to suppress opinions, universities should promote healthy discussions among different perspectives and encourage students to participate in other academic spaces.

Ironically, being a college president may be one of the least desirable positions in American universities. The removal of a university president should ideally result from internal deliberations among board members and academic personnel, not from political pressures emanating from the Capitol. Universities must remain immune to political coercion, and authorities should distinguish between this and exercising freedom of speech and promoting academic freedom. At the moment, actions appear to favour a specific narrative, undermining the potential for diverse and healthy approaches and discussions in a nation where no voices should be silenced.


[1]Blinder, Alan & Others for The New York Times. (12 December 2023) Universities Face Congressional Inquiry and Angry Donors Over Handling of Antisemitism.

[2]Stack, Liam, for The New York Times. (November 2023) Columbia Closes Campus as Israel-Hamas protests erupts.

[3]Hay, Andrew for Reuters. Florida´s De Santis bans Pro-Palestinian Student Group.

[4]Mohamed, Edna, and others for Al Jazeera. Israel-Hamas war updates: More than 16,200 dead in Gaza from Israeli Attacks.

[5]United Nations Human Rights Commission, Hate speech and incitement to hatred or Violence. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief,peaceful%2C%20inclusive%20and%20just%20societies.; The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1965, prohibits “propaganda” and “dissemination of ideas” about racial superiority and The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (art. 4).1948, The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted in 1998  (art. 25).

[6]Simpson, R. M. (2020). The relation between academic freedom and free speech. Ethics, 130(3), 287-319.

[7]Hinchey, P. H. (2010). Finding freedom in the classroom: A practical introduction to critical theory (Vol. 24). Peter Lang; Barrow, C. W. (2017). Realpolitik in the American University: Charles A. Beard and the problem of academic repression. In Neoliberalizing the University: Implications for American Democracy (pp. 26-46). Routledge.