College campuses have frequently been sites of fierce activism over the past century, often operating as proxy battlegrounds for domestic and international social and political issues. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular has been a salient and longstanding subject of campus free speech controversies across the United States.
In the weeks following the October 7 terror attacks on Israel, FIRE has seen intense controversy on college campuses surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That led us to wonder if there are predictors that would allow us to identify which campuses are more likely to experience flared tensions surrounding this topic.
We examined data from FIRE’s 2024 College Free Speech Rankings to see if it might help explain what is going on. The results are astonishing:
- Colleges where students are more accepting of illiberal forms of protest (e.g., shouting down a speaker) are also colleges where students have greater difficulty discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Colleges where students are more accepting of illiberal forms of protest and where students have greater difficulty discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more likely to have experienced an incident — an event where people on campus engaged in protests, marches, walkouts, et cetera — within a month following October 7.
- At colleges where at least 4 in 10 students indicated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a difficult topic to discuss, nearly every one of them — or 90% — experienced an incident within one month following October 7.
- Students at private colleges are more accepting of illiberal protest and less comfortable talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than are students at public colleges.
- Muslim students are disproportionately supportive of allowing Muslim or pro-Palestinian student groups to register as student organizations on their campus compared to Jewish or pro-Israeli student groups. This divergence was not present for Jewish, Christian, and nonreligious students.
Difficulty discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and acceptance of illiberal protest
We found a strong association between students’ level of acceptance of illiberal protest at a college (i.e., acceptance of students shouting down a speaker, blocking entry to an event, or using violence to stop a campus speaker) and students’ level of difficulty discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Specifically, the more acceptable students at a college considered illiberal forms of protest, the more students at that college reported difficulty having an open and honest conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This pattern was unique to this issue, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had the largest positive association with acceptance of illiberal protest among all of the topics FIRE asked about in its college free speech rankings survey.
Next, for each of the 254 colleges sampled, we identified whether a reported incident related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred on campus.
For these analyses, we define an "incident" as an event where people on campus engaged in protests, marches, walkouts, classroom controversies and disruptions, denouncements of university officials for issuing or not issuing statements, or vandalization or other crimes leading to arrests. We logged incidents reported between Oct. 7 and Nov. 6 and classified events as “incidents” independent of whether they involved protected or unprotected speech. Incidents included both protected and unprotected speech because even protected protests and other incidents reflect heightened tension on campus surrounding this topic.
The figure below plots how difficult it is to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a college against how acceptable, on average, students at that college consider illiberal forms of protest. Colleges in the top right quadrant are high in both, and colleges in the bottom left quadrant are low in both. The line plots the strength of the statistically significant correlation, and the colors in the figure reflect whether a college was the site of an incident related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (red indicates yes; blue indicates no).
One can quickly see that colleges where more students find it difficult to have an open and honest conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and colleges where students find illiberal forms of protest more acceptable, are also the colleges more likely to experience an incident related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such differences are all statistically significant.
For instance, if you click to open the interactive version of the figure, hovering over the figure will display which dot represents which college. Most colleges in the top right quadrant of the figure — George Washington University, Brandeis University, Wellesley College, Barnard College, Tulane University, Emory University — have experienced notable incidents related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, most colleges in the bottom left quadrant — Michigan Technological University, Brigham Young University, Hillsdale College, North Dakota State University, Liberty University — have experienced no incidents. Notably, few students at these colleges find illiberal forms of protest acceptable or say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a difficult topic to discuss.
We then parsed the data by type of college (public or private), and a similar pattern emerged. Students at private colleges, on average, are more likely than students at public colleges to consider illiberal forms of protest acceptable and to say they have difficulty having an open and honest conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All differences are statistically significant.
It’s also worth noting that many of the private schools that are outliers in this analysis — in the figure, many of the red dots that are toward the bottom or bottom-left quadrant — are religious schools (e.g., Hillsdale, Brigham Young, Notre Dame). If private religious schools were moved to a separate category, the pattern here would be even stronger.
National trends by religious identity and college type
Next, we wanted to get a sense of how some of these dynamics play out on the national level — across all colleges in the dataset — and within specific demographic groups.
Nationally, about a quarter of students, or 26%, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a difficult topic to have an open and honest conversation about. (By comparison, the most difficult topic to discuss was “abortion,” which was identified by 49% of students.) The proportions of Jewish and Muslim students who said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult to discuss were considerably higher (55% and 41%, respectively). This is even more salient at private colleges, where 61% of Jewish students and 48% of Muslim students said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult to discuss.
We also looked at students’ views on which student groups should be able to register as student organizations and receive student activity fees at their college, specifically honing in on four student groups ostensibly related to Israel and Palestine. Nationally, half of students (50%) thought pro-Israeli student groups should be able to register as student organizations and receive student activity fees. Fifty-four percent of students said the same about pro-Palestinian student groups. Even greater percentages of students supported allowing Jewish and Muslim student groups to do the same (64% and 64%).
When looking at students’ responses to this question by their religious identities, some clear differences emerged. Jewish students were the most supportive of allowing pro-Israeli groups to register as student organizations, at 64% support, and 58% supported allowing pro-Palestinian groups. Jewish students were even more supportive of allowing Jewish and Muslim student groups to register as student organizations (78% and 73%, respectively).
Responses from students who are Christian or nonreligious appear in the figure below.
The outliers, though, in these comparisons are Muslim students. Muslim students, while supportive of allowing Muslim or pro-Palestinian student groups to register as student organizations (69% and 53%, respectively), were notably more resistant to allowing pro-Israeli or Jewish student groups to register as student organizations on campus. Only about a quarter of Muslim students said that pro-Israeli groups should be allowed to register as student organizations, and about half said this about Jewish student groups.
What lies ahead
Of course, correlation is not causation.
Still, it’s not surprising that the more accepting students at a college are of illiberal forms of protest, the more difficult it is for students at that institution to have open and honest discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, students who know their peers are okay with shoutdowns, blocking others from attending campus speeches, and violence in response to speech might avoid weighing in on the most contentious issues of the day.
Where campus tensions bubble below the surface, sudden flare-ups might become more likely in response to distressing events. And these flare-ups are likely not without consequence, as evidenced by large proportions of students who are arguably most impacted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict indicating they don’t think they can have an open and honest conversation about this topic at their college.
That said, one thing is clear: Colleges where students felt they couldn’t openly discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were powder kegs just waiting to go off.
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