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Is saying ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ protected speech under the First Amendment?

Protestor holding a sign that reads "From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free"


A protester holds a sign reading, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."

Since the October 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel and the subsequent invasion of Gaza, college campuses across the United States have experienced almost daily protests and demonstrations by students and faculty of all political stripes. Some are raising their voices in support of Israelis; others, in support of Palestinians. 

Speaking out peacefully and advocating for your beliefs is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. While FIRE does not take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we encourage those on all sides of the debate to lawfully practice their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association, just as our founders intended. 

That being said, FIRE has been troubled to see some college leaders react to protected speech and peaceful protests with calls to prohibit speech they view as inflammatory or even to ban student groups because of their viewpoints. The use of one phrase in particular — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — is so hotly contested that some have called for banning its utterance entirely.

WATCH: FIRE Legal Director Will Creeley explains when "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" is protected speech.

In October, Rockland Community College suspended student Madeline Ward for her pro-Palestinian advocacy, which included shouting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” at a pro-Israel demonstration on campus. The college subsequently charged Ward with numerous conduct violations, including disrupting the event, even though Ward didn’t block anyone from attending and her remarks lasted only a few seconds before she peacefully left the venue. 

FIRE wrote a letter to Rockland on Nov. 1 urging the college to rescind its punishment of Ward.

While the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” may offend some listeners, feeling offended is hardly adequate cause to circumvent First Amendment protections for freedom of speech.

Just a few days later, Brandeis University banned the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine for, in part, social media posts stating, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Brandeis President Ronald Liebowitz characterized the posts as “calls for the erasure of the Jewish state” and suggested that the phrase should be banned on campus. FIRE sent a letter to Brandeis on Nov. 7 demanding the university reinstate the SJP chapter and promise to respect the free speech rights of all students, no matter their views.

While the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” may offend some listeners, feeling offended is hardly adequate cause to circumvent First Amendment protections for freedom of speech. As FIRE Legal Director Will Creeley wrote earlier this month:

For example, if students at a peaceful protest chant anti-Israel slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” that speech, taken alone, is protected political expression. Even if some understand the phrase to call for the destruction of Israel, it is still — absent more — protected as political speech, advocating in general terms for violence elsewhere at an unspecified time against a broadly defined target.

President Leibowitz may believe the phrase is a call for the “erasure of the Jewish state,” but does that justify banning the phrase? After all, recent polling has shown that slightly more than half of students who ostensibly support the phrase were unable to name either the river (Jordan) or the sea (Mediterranean), and many students do not realize some people interpret the phrase as a call for genocide.

Should students be penalized for having an incomplete knowledge of world politics? That hardly seems fair.

Although Brandeis is a private university, and is therefore not bound by the First Amendment, it makes binding commitments to uphold free speech. Banning use of the phrase on campus goes against the culture of free speech that the school’s namesake, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, spent his tenure on the Supreme Court defending. In his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, Brandeis wrote that the “freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile.”

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Still, context is important, and saying “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” could lose the protection of the First Amendment or a college’s free speech policies under very specific circumstances, especially if the actions of someone uttering the phrase cross the line into true threats, incitement to imminent unlawful action, or become part of a pattern of discriminatory harassment. As Creeley added, “Were the same statement to be directed at a specific Jewish student by a student or group moving threateningly towards him, during a protest that has turned violent and unstable, it may arguably constitute a true threat.”

But so far, most pro-Palestinian speech that FIRE has observed since October 7 has fallen within the boundaries of protected speech.

At times like these, when human rights issues are hotly disputed, it is worth remembering that freedom of speech is also a human right and in the United States is strongly protected by the First Amendment and decades of Supreme Court precedent. That’s for good reason:  Throughout human history, those in power have stifled debate by outlawing the spread of ideas with which they disagreed.

What differentiates American democracy from other Western democracies is our broad protections for most forms of speech, including political speech, and our shared belief that no one should be punished for peacefully expressing their views.

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