Muslim advocacy group sues Abbott, saying university executive order violates free speech

Gov. Greg Abbott in front of the Governor's Mansion. (Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune, Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

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A national Muslim advocacy group is suing Gov. Greg Abbott for singling out pro-Palestinian student groups and critics of Israel on Texas college campuses over his March executive order that aims to take stricter action against acts of antisemitism.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations argues that Abbott’s order violates the First Amendment and falsely equates advocacy for Palestinian liberation – through slogans like “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free” – to antisemitism. The organization is filing the lawsuit on behalf of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Houston, Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Texas at Dallas, and the Democratic Socialists of America.

The executive order, which Abbott signed in March, directs Texas universities to “review and update free speech policies to address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech” and names expulsion as an “appropriate punishment” for violating such policies. It specifically names the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine as groups he believes have violated policies and should be subject to discipline.

“Texas supports free speech, especially on university campuses, but that freedom comes with responsibilities for both students and the institutions themselves; and such speech can never incite violence, encourage people to violate the law, harass other students or other Texans, or disrupt the core educational purpose of a university,” the executive order states.

The executive order came as tensions over the war between Israel and Gaza were heating up on college campuses, and nearly a month prior to the crackdown on University of Texas at Austin protests, where demonstrators attempting to build encampments on campus were forced out by police in riot gear and horses. More than 100 people were arrested. Two protestors were arrested at University of Texas Houston, and 21 protestors were arrested at the University of Texas at Dallas.

"Our community has a long history of opposing unjust policies that specifically target pro-Palestinian voices and we fully intend to keep that winning history in place with this legal challenge," William White, director of CAIR-Houston, said in a press release.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to immediate request for comment.

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