As tensions mount on U.S. college campuses over the war in Gaza, several Republican presidential candidates are proposing a crackdown on students and schools that express opposition to Israel, appear to express support for the deadly Hamas attacks or fail to address antisemitism.
Former President Donald J. Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina have called for the federal government to revoke international students’ visas, while others have suggested that universities should lose public funding.
After students at George Washington University projected messages on Tuesday onto the side of a campus building — including “Glory to our martyrs,” “Divestment from Zionist genocide now” and “Free Palestine from the river to the sea,” a phrase that encompasses all of Israel as well as Gaza and the West Bank — two candidates argued almost immediately that the students or the universities, or both, should be punished.
“If this was done by a foreign national, deport them,” Mr. Scott wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Wednesday morning. “If the college coddles them, revoke their taxpayer funding. We must stand up against this evil anti-Semitism everywhere we see it — especially on elite college campuses.”
Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota wrote: “Antisemitism cannot be tolerated. Period. The students responsible should be held accountable and if the university fails to do so it should lose any federal funding.” He indicated in another post that he would “fully enforce” a Trump-era executive order to use Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to revoke federal funding for any university that “enables” antisemitism.
They and other Republicans are wading into an emotional debate on college campuses over Hamas’s attack on Israel, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict — turning the opinions of individual students and student groups, starting at Harvard and New York University, into national flash points. Days of simultaneous pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrations have exposed painful divisions, including significant and potentially consequential ideological rifts between donors, students and faculty members.
The suggestion of punishing anti-Israel views is part of a broader campaign against liberal-leaning campus environments, which many Republicans claim indoctrinate students. But it is also in tension with other parts of that campaign: In many cases, the same candidates have previously condemned what they described as censorship of students who expressed conservative opinions.
Mr. Scott was a co-sponsor of a Senate resolution in 2021 that called on colleges and universities to “facilitate and recommit themselves to protecting the free and open exchange of ideas” and argued that “restrictive speech codes are inherently at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
Mr. Burgum signed legislation in North Dakota, also in 2021, that forbade universities in the state to discriminate against student organizations or speakers based on their viewpoint.
When asked where Mr. Scott drew the line between protected and unprotected speech, his campaign did not comment on the record but cited a previous statement in which he called it a “fine line.” Mr. Burgum’s campaign pointed to the Trump executive order as requiring action.
Separately, on Tuesday, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida wrote in a letter to university presidents that he had determined — “in consultation with” Mr. DeSantis — that two campus chapters of the group Students for Justice in Palestine “must be deactivated.”
The national Students for Justice in Palestine organization released guidance to campus chapters earlier this month calling for demonstrations “in support of our resistance in Palestine.” The guidance called Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed more than 1,400 people, “a surprise operation against the Zionist enemy” and “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance.”
It added, “This is what it means to Free Palestine: not just slogans and rallies, but armed confrontation with the oppressors.”
The letter from the chancellor, Ray Rodrigues, said the chapters had violated a Florida law against providing “material support” to “a designated foreign terrorist organization.”
“The State University System will continue working with the Executive Office of the Governor and S.U.S.’s Board of Governors to ensure we are all using all tools at our disposal to crack down on campus demonstrations that delve beyond protected First Amendment speech into harmful support for terrorist groups,” it said. “These measures could include necessary adverse employment actions and suspensions for school officials.”
The national Students for Justice in Palestine organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The letter came a few days after Mr. DeSantis declared at a campaign event in Iowa that, if elected president, he would revoke the visas of students who supported Hamas. He did not say how he would determine who fell into that category; some public commentary has applied the label “pro-Hamas” to demonstrators expressing broader support for Palestinians or opposition to Israel’s military actions in Gaza, which have killed more than 6,500 people, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. (Its figures could not be independently verified.)
Mr. Trump made the same proposal at his own recent event in Iowa, also not providing details. “Under the Trump administration, we will revoke the student visas of radical anti-American and antisemitic foreigners at our colleges and universities, and we will send them straight back home,” he said.
Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, joined Mr. Scott and Mr. Burgum in saying she would cut federal funding to colleges that did not condemn students who supported Hamas.
“No more federal money for colleges and universities that allow antisemitism to flourish on campus,” Ms. Haley wrote on X, arguing that the promotion of certain opinions in relation to the Hamas attack constituted “threatening someone’s life” and was “not freedom of speech.”
Only one candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, publicly rejected efforts to punish schools or individual students for anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian statements.
“Colleges are spaces for students to experiment with ideas & sometimes kids join clubs that endorse boneheadedly wrong ideas,” he wrote on X this month in response to an uproar over a letter from student groups at Harvard that held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
He added: “It wasn’t great when people wearing Trump hats were fired from work. It wasn’t great when college graduates couldn’t get hired unless they signed oppressive ‘DEI’ pledges. And it’s not great now if companies refuse to hire kids who were part of student groups that once adopted the wrong view on Israel.”