Braun: College campus protests call for decisive leadership


During the first half of May, administrators at the University of Washington patiently negotiated with pro-Hamas protesters about voluntarily dismantling their illegal encampment at the center of the Seattle campus.

Despite more than a week of engaging, the encampment remained. Then the situation escalated.

On May 12, the student newspaper reported, pro-Hamas protesters grabbed Israeli flags from pro-Israel demonstrators, then ripped or burned them. Three days later, antisemitic graffiti appeared on many major buildings on the main campus.

While the UW protesters were still establishing their so-called “liberation zone” and issuing their demands to university administrators, appeasers at The Evergreen State College’s (TESC) Olympia campus were already capitulating to that school’s protesters.

The concessions TESC made include a vow to quickly create an “Investment Policy Disappearing Task Force” to address “divestment from companies that profit from gross human rights violations and/or the occupation of Palestinian Territories.”

Somehow, the “Evergreen Gaza Solidarity Encampment” even managed to negotiate about oversight of the campus police. Unbelievably, TESC administrators agreed.

Now a protest and encampment has sprung up at Western Washington University in Bellingham, with its own list of demands.

Compare these situations to how the University of Florida is dealing with pro-Hamas protestors.

Florida president Ben Sasse put it clearly: “We will always defend your rights to free speech and free assembly — but if you cross the line on clearly prohibited activities, you will be thrown off campus and suspended.”

That is decisive leadership. It provides guardrails to students so they know what will and will not be allowed.

The First Amendment means you won’t be jailed for standing in the public square and airing your grievances against the government. It does not protect lawless behavior.

There is nothing new about unrest on college campuses. UW’s own website proclaims the university’s “rich history of… radical activism.” But that doesn't justify the costly damage to the central campus.

On May 10 the UW administration had properly declared its “response to students’ call for change will not be based on an encampment.”

According to UW President Ana Mari Cauce, protesters admitted the graffiti attack several days later was meant to up the ante – an “intentional escalation.”

Destructive actions deserve meaningful consequences.

Let's remember what those of college age who have lived in our state for the past several years have likely learned about consequences.

They’ve seen how Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson and others stood by during the civil unrest of 2020. Want to occupy a park and burn a police precinct? Sure, we'll stay out of the way.

These young people watched as sidewalks and other parks and public property in many Washington communities were taken over by drug havens masquerading as encampments – again without action from the state’s chief executive and Washington's top-ranking law-enforcement officer.

The fact that pro-Hamas protesters are concealing their identities suggests they fear their reprehensible “from the river to the sea” rhetoric could bring unwelcome consequences in the real world.

Let me be clear. That jihadist Hamas rhetoric calls for the elimination of the state of Israel – from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It is antisemitic. Full stop. Unless protesters want to be remembered as ideological allies of the Nazis they should cease and denounce this hateful chant.

Still, it's no wonder they feel entitled to occupy public property, harass onlookers and spray paint news-media cameras. They have no respect for authority.

Over the years I have introduced legislation to protect free speech on our state’s higher-education campuses. The most recent examples are SB 6103 and SB 6104, from this year.

The latter bill would require Washington’s colleges and universities to commit to promoting and protecting a “completely free and open discussion of ideas that maintains a climate of mutual respect.”

All of these bills were ignored by the current legislative majority. But now that we see the intolerance and aggression of the pro-Hamas crowd — I won’t call them students because not all of them are — maybe the next set of legislators will actually consider the idea.

The most effective protest I've seen as a legislator happened in January 2019, when hundreds of hairstylists and barbers converged on the state Capitol building to vocally oppose a labor bill that would have threatened their businesses.

No one camped, no one wore masks, no one broke anything. And it worked. The bill didn't pass.

“We’re a university, not a daycare. We don’t coddle emotions, we wrestle with ideas,” says the University of Florida president. Absolutely right.

He goes on to explain that universities need to differentiate between speech and violence, and draw a hard line at unlawful action, because appeasing mobs emboldens agitators elsewhere.

They also must say what they mean and then do what they say. Don't make threats then fail to follow through.

Back in 1970, according to the UW’s website, university administrators became tired of the activists and unrest to the point that the president authorized faculty members to invoke the state’s trespassing law to deal with disrupters.

As of this writing, UW President Cauce had not followed a similar path – but she should be willing to, if that’s what it takes to end an illegal encampment.

The Washington Administrative Code includes the Student Conduct Code for the University of Washington.

Under the “prohibited conduct” section you'll find WAC 478-121-123, titled “discriminatory harassment.” It absolutely applies to what we have seen on the UW main campus.

If people want to protest for or against a war, fine. They have that freedom, which Republican legislators have all sworn an oath to protect.

But when protests become vandalism and harassment, it's no longer fine. The guilty parties should expect consequences.

Minds are changed by reason, not force, Ben Sasse writes. The UW protesters don't seem to get that, perhaps because they are being manipulated by others with an anti-Jewish and anti-American agenda.

There's too much lawless behavior in our communities already. Let's keep it off of our college campuses.

This is a time for decisive leadership. Speech must be protected, but illegal encampments on Washington’s university campuses must go.


Sen. John Braun of Centralia serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.