President Biden on Thursday addressed the intensifying pro-Palestinian protests at American colleges

Biden said of the protests, “There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos,” which have seen more than 2,000 arrests nationwide. His remarks at the White House were the first since April 22, when he made brief comments to reporters.
“In moments like this, there are always those who rush in to score political points. But this isn’t a moment for politics. It’s a moment for clarity. So let me be clear. Violent protest is not protected, peaceful protest is,” Biden said.

What is the cause of the protests?

After decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians living in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas, Gaza’s militant government, launched an attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed nearly 1,200 people. The incident was the largest single killing of Jews since the Holocaust, and hundreds of hostages were taken.
In response, Israel’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declared war on Hamas and launched an invasion that has so far killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to figures from the Hamas-run Health Ministry.
The scale of Israel’s retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack has received international condemnation, including by President Biden, as indiscriminate and responsible for a heavy civilian death toll.

What about free speech rights?

The arrests of protesters at U.S. college campuses can be controversial. After all, the First Amendment of the Constitution protects the right to free speech. The rub, however, comes when demonstrations disrupt the rights of others or put their safety at risk.
“I condemn the violence at UCLA last night,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement issued Wednesday. “The law is clear: The right to free speech does not extend to inciting violence, vandalism, or lawlessness on campus. Those who engage in illegal behavior must be held accountable for their actions — including through criminal prosecution, suspension, or expulsion.”
Ultimately, it may be up to the courts to decide whether colleges that have brought in police to arrest protesters have gone too far.
At Arizona State University, some students arrested over the weekend have filed a lawsuit against the school for allegedly infringing on their free speech rights.

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Political fallout

With a significant portion of his political base upset over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, Biden has walked a delicate line regarding the pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations.
On Wednesday, Biden was content to let his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, field questions about the recent arrests at American universities.
“Americans have the right to peacefully protest, as long as it’s within the law,” Jean-Pierre said. “Forcibly taking over a building is not peaceful. It’s just not.
“Students have the right to feel safe, they have the right to learn, they have the right to do this without disruption,” she added. “They have the right to attend their commencement without feeling unsafe.”
On Tuesday, former President Donald Trump, who has also been critical of Netanyahu, openly mused about whether the protesters detained so far would be treated better than his own supporters who rioted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I wonder if what’s going to happen to them will be anything comparable to what happened to J6, because they’re doing a lot of destruction, a lot of damages, a lot of people getting hurt very badly,” he wrote in a post to his social media site, Truth Social. “I wonder if that’s going to be the same kind of treatment they gave J6. Let’s see how that all works out.”

What do the protesters want?

While there is no single group organizing all of the protests across the U.S., one recurring demand that has emerged among demonstrators is for American universities to divest themselves from companies that have a financial stake in Israel’s government, or from companies that supply Israel with weapons or military technology.

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At Columbia University, for example, protesters have often chanted the slogan “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest.”
In the 1980s, students protested at colleges across the country to pressure universities to divest themselves from companies that did business with South Africa’s apartheid government. That movement has been credited with the downfall of the regime.

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