Hate Speech and Harassment

In This Section:


Often, activists supporting Palestinian human rights are accused of “hate speech” and “anti-Semitism” as a way to divert attention from criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses. It’s a good idea to be prepared to respond to these kinds of accusations by publicly posting your anti-oppression principles, and informing people that criticism of the Israeli government is not criticism of Jewish people or the Jewish faith.  Consider meeting with administrators to make this distinction clear to them.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color or national origin at educational institutions receiving federal funding. If a school is found to have discriminated against or tolerated discrimination against a protected group, it can lose federal funding.

While speech is generally protected, verbal conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit” is considered harassment, and is not protected as free speech. If you think you are a victim of this type of harassment, you should seek counseling and legal support right away. Your school is obligated to protect you. 

 Some groups have filed Title VI complaints alleging that Palestine activism amounts to discrimination or harassment against Jewish students. These complaints have so far been dismissed by the Department of Education (DOE), which has made clear that expression of political viewpoints, standing alone, is not “harassment” and does not create a hostile educational environment under Title VI.

Even speech that is considered rude or offensive is protected First Amendment activity. Many anti-oppression activists and critical race scholars argue that racist speech should be prohibited because of the grave injuries that it inflicts on oppressed communities. This argument emphasizes that hateful speech has especially harmful effects when expressed by privileged people at the top of race and gender hierarchies and used as a tool to further subjugate oppressed groups.[1]

But the law does not recognize this distinction. This means that when people on campus express racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or anti-Muslim speech, public universities cannot punish it, unless the speech reaches the legal definition of harassment or incitement. Administrators can condemn hate speech, and work to promote more anti-racist speech.  Private universities may have stricter policies restricting “hate speech.”


The Basics

  • You have the First Amendment right to criticize Israel or any other country, including the United States.

  • Allegations that expression criticizing the state of Israel is harassment or intimidation that targets and creates a hostile educational environment for Jewish students on campus on the basis of race or national origin have been soundly rejected by the U.S. DOE’s Office for Civil Rights.[2] 


Frequently Asked Questions

What can I do about emails, text messages and Facebook posts calling me terrible names and even threatening me because I support Palestinian rights?

Yes. Document this. Take screen shots and save the messages. Depending on the level of harassment, you may wish to report this to your college. If you are being physically threatened and feel unsafe, consider reporting to law enforcement authorities like campus or local police. They may be required to investigate such threats. But keep in mind that hate speech can’t be punished by public universities or law enforcement unless it reaches the level of legal “harassment.” If you are being bullied because you support Palestinian rights, contact Palestine Legal. Many colleges have anti-bullying policies as well.

Groups are posting negative things about me on the internet that aren’t true. What can I do about this?

Contact Palestine Legal.  We can brainstorm strategies for the best response. Often, suing for defamation is not the best strategy. However, there are other affirmative ways to deal with false allegations. See our section on defamation and our case study Responding to False Accusations in the Media. 


[1] See Mari J. Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and The First Amendment (Westview Press, 1993).

[2] A federal judge has also dismissed a lawsuit making similar allegations. See Felber v. Yudof, 851 F.Supp.2d 1182, 1188 (N.D. Cal. 2011) (“A very substantial portion of the conduct to which [the complainants] object [i.e., speech critical of Israel] represents pure political speech and expressive conduct, in a public setting, regarding matters of public concern, which is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment.”).

Disclaimer: Do not rely on these materials without first seeking the advice of an attorney about your particular situation and facts. Only a licensed attorney, reviewing your individual facts, may render legal advice. This information is provided as a public resource for information purposes only. Nothing in this resource should be taken to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Palestine Legal.