Speaker Johnson, House Republicans ramp up criticism of ‘out of control’ college protests

Written by on April 30, 2024

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(WASHINGTON) — Speaker Mike Johnson and other House Republicans are stepping up their criticism of the college protests happening nationwide in connection to the Israel-Hamas war.

Johnson, speaking on Tuesday alongside other GOP leaders at their weekly press conference, denounced the latest developments at Columbia University and called on President Joe Biden to speak more forcefully on the issue.

“Columbia is out of control,” he claimed, citing overnight developments of students occupying a campus building and defying the university’s order to disperse.

“They’re unable to operate the university at a time when the students are prepared for their final exams,” Johnson said. “It’s unfair, it’s unright, it’s unsafe and it must stop.”

Biden has tried to balance support for Israel with sympathy for Palestinians killed and suffering in Gaza, but has faced criticism from some in his own party and many Republicans on his approach to the fraught Israel-Hamas war. Last week, Biden said he condemned “antisemitic protests” but also condemned “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

The speaker and some of his New York Republican colleagues visited the New York City campus last week and met with Jewish students. Johnson was heckled and booed when he delivered remarks in front of protesters calling on Columbia University President Minouche Shafik to resign and suggested the National Guard be called to tamp down the demonstrations.

The college protests have been largely peaceful, officials say, but escalated in recent days following arrests and suspensions at some schools. Pro-Palestinian students and protesters have called for their colleges to divest from funding Israeli military operations as the humanitarian crisis worsens in Gaza. Some Jewish students have called the demonstrations antisemitic and said they fear for their safety.

Congressional Republicans have seized on the protests to politically hit Democrats on the issue and show strong support for Israel. Many have called for colleges with these protests to lose federal funding.

House Republicans on Tuesday also unveiled the framework of a new congressional investigation examining how university leadership has dealt with the protests. House Committee on Education and Workforce Chair Virginia Foxx, joined by GOP leadership and committee chairs at a press conference Tuesday, said she’s notified the presidents of Yale, UCLA and the University of Michigan to appear before the Education Committee on May 23.

“American universities are officially put on notice that we have come to take our universities back,” Foxx said.

Johnson said Congress has “a role” to play in this issue, but also called on Biden to do more.

“We need the president of the United States to speak to the issue and say this is wrong. What’s happening on college campuses right now is wrong,” Johnson said. “It is un-American. It is not who we are. The president seems unable or unwilling to do this.”

The White House said on Tuesday that it believed that protesters “forcibly taking over a building on campus is absolutely the wrong approach.”

“That is not an example of peaceful protest. And of course, as we’ve rightly noted, hate speech and hate symbols also have no place in this country,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who told ABC News the administration was “watching this carefully.”

Kirby previously said Biden respected the rights of demonstrators to peacefully protest, but made clear they “don’t want to see anybody hurt in the process.”

“The president knows that there are very strong feelings about the war in Gaza. He understands that, he respects that, and as he has said many times, we certainly respect the right of peaceful protest,” Kirby said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

Kirby added that the administration also condemned “the antisemitism language that we’ve heard of late and certainly condemn all the hate speech and the threats of violence out there.”

This week, the House is expected to vote on legislation titled the “Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023.” The bill, backed by Republicans and some Democrats, would require the Department of Education to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism when applying anti-discrimination laws.

But several Democrats have taken issue with the alliance’s definition of antisemitism and some of the contemporary examples on antisemitism listed by the group. Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, who is Jewish, said he took issue with the bill because it would put the “thumb on the scale” in favor of one definition of antisemitism and could “chill” constitutionally-protected free speech.

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries urged Johnson to consider a different bipartisan bill targeting antisemitism introduced by North Carolina Democrat Kathy Manning and New Jersey Republican Chris Smith titled the “Countering Antisemitism Act.” The legislation would establish within the White House a national coordinator to counter antisemitism; require the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center to jointly produce an annual threat assessment of antisemitic violent extremism; and require the Department of Education to designate a senior official to advise on countering antisemitic discrimination in higher education.

“There is nothing scheduled on the floor this week that would accomplish the concrete, thoughtful strategies outlined by the Biden administration, set forth in the legislation and echoed by leading Jewish organizations across the country,” Jeffries said in a letter to Johnson on Monday.

“The effort to crush antisemitism and hatred in any form is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s an American issue that must be addressed in a bipartisan manner with the fierce urgency of now. In this spirit,” Jeffries added.

ABC News’ Arthur Jones and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

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