On Wednesday, December 11, President Trump signed the “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism,” a measure designed to counter anti-Semitism at colleges and universities eligible to receive federal funding. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, institutions of higher education are prohibited from discriminating against students based on an individual’s race, ethnicity, or national origin. As religion is not a protected category, Jewish students have not always received the same protections as other minority groups. President Trump’s executive order recognizes that “Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.”
In 2010, the Obama administration proposed a similar interpretation. Then Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Thomas E. Perez, wrote that “discrimination against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other religious groups violates Title VI when that discrimination is based on the group’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, rather than its members’ religious practice.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks instances of anti-Semitism at colleges and universities, has noted an increase in campus incidents in recent years. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has long warned that Jewish students too often encounter a hostile campus environment, most notably in our 2017 report Campus Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and the Problem of the BDS Movement.
Unfortunately, universities have not always been willing to condemn anti-Semitic incidents. President Trump’s executive order will help change this by requiring universities to “operate in a non-discriminatory manner” with respect to their Jewish students in admissions decisions, academic programming, and the provision of student services (among a host of other things).
Public universities are also bound to uphold students’ First Amendment rights, and the majority of private institutions assert, arguably contractually, the importance of free speech in student and faculty codes of conduct. Promoting a free and open marketplace of ideas is among ACTA’s foundational commitments as a diversity of viewpoints is the lifeblood of the university. Nothing in President Trump’s executive order should be construed as discouraging lively debate—even lively criticism—of Israeli policies on American campuses. ACTA acknowledges that in practice, the line between protected speech and institutional tolerance for anti-Semitic and discriminatory actions will not always be clear and obvious, and that activists might even attempt to leverage the administration’s interpretation to pressure institutions to discourage protected speech. That is why governing boards, along with university faculty and administrators, should proactively affirm a principled commitment to safeguarding student and faculty rights to free expression while scrupulously ensuring that Jewish students enjoy the same protections under Title VI as other groups now do. Every institution needs to have policies that reflect a steadfast commitment to carrying out all of the institution’s functions in a non-discriminatory manner with ultimate respect for intellectual diversity and freedom of expression.
MEDIA CONTACT: Connor Murnane