Pro-Israel lawmakers back a bill to censor pro-Palestine student groups on AZ campuses

Lawmakers who have complained about censorship on Arizona college campuses are lining up to support a bill that would censor pro-Palestinian student organizations. 

House Bill 2759 prohibits state universities from recognizing student groups that provide “material support” to a foreign terrorist organization, vocally support genocide or promote a foreign terrorist organization on their social media platforms, or in any manner that “places a Jewish student in reasonable apprehension” 

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, though it has garnered most of its support from across the aisle, with Republican co-signers greatly outnumbering those of Hernandez’s own party, including many that have supported changing state law to end what they’ve claimed is censorship of conservatives on Arizona campuses.

Hernandez’s bill has been condemned by pro-Palestinian advocacy organizations and student groups, as many believe the broad manner in which the legislation is written encapsulates almost every aspect of protest against Zionism and the Israeli occupation. 

The bill comes as chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine have faced scrutiny on campuses nationwide after the national chapter disseminated materials to chapters following the events commending the attacks. 

However, despite the work of individual campus chapters to distance their groups from the national organization, the groups have been targeted by college administrations on campuses throughout the country. 

In alliance with the Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at all three state universities, the Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance released a statement regarding Hernandez’s bill, stating that the legislation “infringes upon constitutional rights by effectively criminalizing free speech.”

“The freedom to advocate for the rights of Palestinian should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of terrorism and anti-semitism” the group said in the statement via Instagram. “The use of the ‘fight against anti-semitism’ to silence criticism of government policies or to suppress advocacy for Palestinian rights is unacceptable.”

Raees Mohamed is an attorney with the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). During a press conference denouncing the bill, Muhammad called HB2759 propaganda, that offers nothing to support the first amendment

“We all agree on all sides of this dispute that the First Amendment is critical. We all agree that state sponsored viewpoint censorship is unconstitutional.” Mohamed said. “We can all agree that the First Amendment is first in the Constitution because it is the essential fabric of who we are as Americans.” 

Mohamed referred back to when ASU was criticized after the university’s College Republicans United chapter welcomed Nick Fuentes, a Nazi sympathizer, holocaust denier and white supremacist, to speak at the group’s annual convention, and the university’s only defense was that it supported the group’s First Amendment rights to free speech. That event was later canceled.

“No one tried to pass a bill to ban him from coming to campus or from a student group endorsing him. Why is that?” Mohamed said. “We should entertain no bill that censors students protesting against genocide.” 

Censorship on university campuses has been a hot topic amongst Republican lawmakers in recent years. A number of bills have been proposed by GOP members seeking protections for conservative viewpoints on campuses. 

When Barrett Honors College students and faculty protested an event featuring controversial conservative figures, Sen. Anthony Kern demanded an investigation exploring the state of free speech on the campus. He then introduced Senate Bill 1304, which targets Arizona’s public universities for what he claims has been habitual censorship of conservative students. Three lawmakers who cosigned that bill are also cosponsors of Hernandez’s HB2759. 

While the Arizona Board of Regents, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University have all lobbied against Kern’s measure, the regents and universities have yet to take any formal position against Hernandez’s bill.

Lawmakers supporting censorship when it aligns with their beliefs is hypocritical, said Derek Duba of Common Defense, a grassroots organization of U.S veterans, and is deeply disappointing. 

“I think that those lawmakers actually are deeply aware of that overlap,” Duba said. “That (contradiction) shows that this is not serious legislation that they are advancing to pass.To me, it shows that this is not a good faith attempt to advance the rights of individual students, and it highlights the hypocrisy of those, frankly, Republican lawmakers.” 

Rowan Imran, an activist with the Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance, also spoke at the press conference. Her comments brought attention to the fact that personal bias plays a large role in determining what rhetoric is responsible for placing students in “reasonable apprehension” as mentioned in HB2759. 

Imran said that when Hernandez, who is Jewish, refers to herself as a “proud Zionist,” what she hears is that the Tucson Democrat actually supports the political movement to lay claim to her ancestral land and the settlement within the homes of her family and friends, even if it leads to the displacement of those Palestinians, or worse — their incarceration or death. 

Nonetheless, Imran emphasized that, despite how apprehensive the phrase makes her and many other Palestinians feel, there has been no call for censorship of the matter. 

“Just because some believe ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is a genocidal call, doesn’t mean it is,” Imran said. “Students calling themselves ‘proud Zionists’ makes me feel uncomfortable and unsafe, but that’s the beauty of living in a country where we believe in freedom of speech.” 

Imran is referring to the Feb. 13 House Education committee meeting, where Hernandez read a passage from the social media from an unnamed recognized student organization that read: “Death to the pilgrim, death to the Zionist, death to the settler.” 

Hernandez said that the post reflected the reason that she introduced HB2759.

“I am a very proud Zionist, all of you who have served with me know that. My license plate says ‘Zionist,’” Hernandez said. “When I have students who are calling for the death of me and my community, I find that very problematic.”

In response, civil rights attorney David Chami told lawmakers that the issue with interpreting social media posts like the aforementioned is that you can not assume you know the intent of their message. 

“The pilgrims died a long time ago…they don’t even exist. You can very easily read that post to mean death to the ideology of settler colonialism,” he said. 

Chami, who is a board member for CAIR’s Arizona chapter, also reminded the committee of a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which states that the First Amendment protects the right of  student organizations to “associate and speak out on matters of public concern free of censorship by public university officials.” 

“We can have arguments about what (from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free) means, but you can’t censor that speech. That is viewpoint discrimination,” he said. “When the Israeli student associations condone what the (International Court of Justice) has said is plausibly an active genocide, not a hypothetical genocide…will the university be forced to shut them down? You think you’re restricting (Students for Justice in Palestine), but you’re restricting everybody.”

The bill passed through committee with a vote of 7-1, with the only vote against the measure coming from Chandler Democrat Jennifer Pawlik. The bill is awaiting consideration by the full House of Representatives.

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