Gov. Abbott orders Texas universities to revise free speech policies to combat antisemitism

Photo Courtesy of the Office of the Texas Governor



Gov. Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA44 on March 27, obligating higher education institutions in Texas — including UTD — to punish what he described as increasing antisemitism on college campuses linked to the Israel-Hamas war.

To comply with the order, UTD must revise its free speech policies to address “the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on college campuses” and establish and enforce punishments for students, staff and faculty violating the policy, including expulsion from the university. UTD’s updated free speech policy must also include Texas’ definition of antisemitism, adopted in 2016, which follows the definition established by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. According to the university’s current free speech policy, UTDSP5001(B)(7.4), UTD prohibits both religious and race-based harassment, which are subject to investigation and the disciplinary process. GA44 targets pro-Palestine student organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine as a group eligible for punishment. 

GA44 requires the chair of the board of regents for all Texas public university systems to report to the Office of the Governor with documentation verifying compliance with the changes within 90 days of the order’s release, June 25. 

“Texas supports free speech, especially on university campuses, but that freedom comes with responsibilities for both students and the institutions themselves,” Abbott said in GA44. 

Abbott said one of the reasons for the executive order is the increase of antisemitic vandalism on Texas campuses. For example, the Austin American-Statesman reported March 18 that the University of Texas’ center of Jewish student life, which is affiliated with Hillel International, had been vandalized with the words “Free Palestine.” 

GA44 requires Texas universities adopt Government Code 448.001’s definition of antisemitism, which uses examples of antisemitism provided by IHRA. Examples include “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” alongside nine others cited in the code. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit civil liberties group focusing on college campuses, said antisemitism is a legitimate issue that Texas institutions must take legal action against only if the speech has exceeded First Amendment protections. FIRE said that GA44 stifles free speech, in stark contrast to constitutional protections of political speech, and ultimately fails to address the cause of antisemitism. 

“State-mandated campus censorship violates the First Amendment and will not effectively answer anti-Semitism,” FIRE said. “By chilling campus speech, the executive order threatens to sabotage the transformative power of debate and discussion. That’s in sharp contrast to Texas state law, which wisely recognizes ‘freedom of speech and assembly as central to the mission of institutions of higher education.’” 

Abbott’s order also emphasized that phrases such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which he said has been used in multiple university protests, is an “antisemitic phrase.” This view reflects the opinion of groups like the ADL and the AJC, who argue the phrase is antisemitic because of its use by Hamas, who call for the destruction of the state of Israel. Organizations at UTD such as SJP have used this phrase while speaking out against Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Abbott has previously passed similar laws in support of Israel that affect activism on college campuses, such as Senate Bill 15 17, passed June 2023, which prohibits universities from certain academic boycotts in higher education. Student Government has passed two resolutions regarding UTD and Israel: a resolution demanding UTD divest from arms manufacturers aiding Israel passed in spring 2023 and a resolution demanding immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza passed in spring 2024. 

Combat Antisemitism Movement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to curbing modern antisemitism through policymaking, praised the order in their press release.

“We thank Governor Abbott for his leadership in taking this crucial step to ensure a safe learning environment for Jewish students in Texas,” CAM said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations “vehemently condemns” GA44 as a flagrant attack against freedom of speech in their March 27 press release. Mustafa Carroll, executive chair of DFW’s CAIR chapter, said that advocacy for Palestinian rights alongside criticism of Israel cannot be considered inherently antisemitic acts, and doing so only deters students from engaging in geopolitical discourses on campus because of the threat of disciplinary action. 

“This order not only undermines the principles of free speech and academic freedom,” Caroll said. “But also perpetuates a harmful narrative that equates criticism of Israeli policies with antisemitism.”



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