House Passes Antisemitism Bill Amid Free Speech Concerns

The US House of Representatives has passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act with a 320-91 vote, aiming to expand the definition of antisemitism in college campus investigations. The bill has sparked concerns among some lawmakers and free speech advocates, who argue it may stifle protected speech.

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House Passes Antisemitism Bill Amid Free Speech Concerns

House Passes Antisemitism Bill Amid Free Speech Concerns

The US House of Representatives has passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act with a 320-91 vote, aiming to expand the definition of antisemitism used by the Department of Education when investigating discrimination against Jews on college campuses. The bill would apply the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) definition of antisemitism to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on "race, color, and national origin" in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

Why this matters: This legislation has far-reaching implications for the balance between free speech and combating discrimination on college campuses, and its passage may set a precedent for how other forms of discrimination are addressed in educational institutions. The debate surrounding this bill also highlights the challenges of defining and addressing antisemitism in the context of political discourse and religious freedom.

However, the legislation has sparked concerns among some Christian lawmakers and free speech advocates. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) argued that "The Gospel itself would meet the definition of antisemitism under the terms of this bill." He claimed that "The Bible is clear in that its words plainly, textually would violate this law. That is nuts and in deep conflict with the First Amendment."

Legal experts have dismissed these concerns. University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter emphasized that the legislation "doesn't outlaw the New Testament at all," nor would it ban the religious text from federally funded institutions. University of Illinois law professor Jason Mazzonestated that there is no plausible way to interpret the legislation as banning the New Testament, even in a higher education setting, as it would violate the First Amendment.

The IHRA's definition of antisemitism includes examples such as using symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism to characterize Israel or Israelis, and drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. Critics argue that this definition is overly expansive and could lead to censorship issues, potentially stifling speech protected under the First Amendment.

The passage of the Antisemitism Awareness Act comes amidst a backdrop of campus protests and clashes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups at universities across the United States. The demonstrations have raised questions about the balance between free speech and campus safety. Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-San Diego) defended the right to protest and voted against the bill, stating that "conflating free speech and hate crimes will not make Jewish students any safer."

The bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), has received broad bipartisan support in the House, with 133 Democrats voting in favor. However, 70 Democrats and 21 Republicans voted against it, with GOP opposition largely coming from the right flank of the conference. The legislation will next need to be taken up by the Senate for consideration.

As the debate over the Antisemitism Awareness Act continues, it remains to be seen how the legislation will fare in the Senate and whether the concerns raised by critics will lead to any amendments or changes. The bill has broughtto the forefront the complex challenges of balancing the fight against antisemitism with protecting free speech rights on college campuses.