Free-Speech Restrictions, Antisemitism Tested In RivCo And Beyond

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In a bipartisan move, Riverside County’s Congressional members, along with their CA colleagues, helped pass the Antisemitism Awareness Act.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — California’s representatives serving in the U.S House appear nearly united in response to the wave of protests at U.S. college campuses — including in Riverside County — that have erupted amid Israel’s actions in Gaza.

In a bipartisan move Wednesday, Riverside County’s Congressional members, along with their colleagues in California and across the nation, passed H.R. 6090, otherwise known as the Antisemitism Awareness Act.

Advocates say the legislation would empower the federal government to crack down on current campus protests by creating “a clear definition of antisemitism” that encompasses threats against Jewish people and certain criticisms of Israel. If it becomes law, the Education Department could use it to cut off funding to colleges that, for example, allow protests like those happening today.

First Amendment advocates, however, say the legislation is dangerous in that it would undo longstanding rights.

In a released statement Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union said H.R. 6090 “threatens to censor political speech critical of Israel on college campuses under the guise of addressing antisemitism.”

Police face off with pro-Palestinian demonstrators inside an encampment on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Christopher Anders, director of ACLU’s Democracy and Technology Policy Division, said, “Addressing rising antisemitism is critically important, but sacrificing American’s free speech rights is not the way to solve that problem. This bill would throw the full weight of the federal government behind an effort to stifle criticism of Israel and risks politicizing the enforcement of federal civil rights statutes precisely when their robust protections are most needed. The Senate must block this bill that undermines First Amendment protections before it’s too late.”

California has 52 House seats, with one vacancy. During Wednesday’s vote, 27 Golden State Democrats and 11 Republicans voted in favor of H.R. 6090. Eleven California Democrats cast no votes and two did not weigh in. With the exception of Mark Takano (D-39), all Riverside County representatives were in favor. Nationally, the bill was approved by a vote of 320-91, with a majority of Democrats — 133 — joining Republicans.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-48) represents a large swath of Southwest Riverside County, as well as central and eastern parts of San Diego County. He released a statement following his yes vote. It read, in part, ” … after witnessing for more than six months a widespread and growing tide of antisemitism in America — much of it centered on the campuses of our colleges and universities – a bipartisan supermajority of the Congress took appropriate action.”

Republican Congressman Ken Calvert represents District 41, which stretches from Lake Elsinore to part of the Coachella Valley. After his yes vote, he posted a statement on X.

“I just joined a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives in passing the Antisemitism Awareness Act on the first day of Jewish American Heritage Month. This bill reinforces Civil Rights Act protections for Jewish students who are subjected to antisemitism,” he wrote.

But in nearby San Diego, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-51), who is Jewish, cast a no vote. In a released statement, she expressed deep concern about rising antisemitism but said H.R. 6090 is not the answer:

It’s unclear what the prospects are for the Antisemitism Awareness Act in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

As Washington debates the legislation, campus protests continue in California. Students at UC Riverside established a campus encampment Monday to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza. The students are calling for the school to end “all investments and endowments” benefiting the Jewish state.

“We are joining the student movement, the student Intifada,” a spokesperson for Students for Justice in Palestine, UCR chapter, told City News Service. “We are not leaving this encampment day and night until the university complies and meets with us to discuss our demands.”

There have been no reports of violence at UCR amid the protest, unlike others in the Golden State. A nine-hour standoff came to a tense and chaotic end at UCLA when police in riot gear breached and dismantled a pro-Palestine encampment at the school early Thursday, terminating a weeklong protest and taking over 100 into custody.

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