Reacting to protests on campuses across the country, President Joe Biden today said people have the right to free speech but not if it turns violent.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, during a briefing today, said the president’s remarks have come too late.

“My question to him would be, where have you been?'” said Capito, R-W.Va. “We’ve seen violence break out on campuses all across the country — here in Washington at George Washington University’s campus, obviously Columbia, UCLA.

“I think that this should have been a speech the president made weeks ago as you could see this mounting and so now you have property destruction, you have Jewish students at Columbia being told not to come to class, you have Jewish professors fearing for their safety on campus. This is an abominable, appalling situation.”

College campuses across the country have been roiled by protests of how Israel’s operations in Gaza are being conducted. In most cases, protesters are pushing college officials to “divest” from companies that do business with Israel or that could benefit financially from the military operations.

Typically that refers to college endowments that are invested in stocks, bonds or other financial instruments.

Some of the statements, chants and signage have been criticized as crossing into antisemitism. 

On some campuses, the situation has grown increasingly confrontational. At Columbia University in New York, police this week removed protesters who were occupying a building. Police this morning dismantled a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of California at Los Angeles. Police clashed with protesters this week at University of Wisconsin in Madison.

President Biden today said protesters should be free to express their opinions, but that violence is not acceptable.

“Violent protest is not protected,” Biden said. “Peaceful protest is. It’s against the law when violence occurs. Destroying property is not a peaceful protest. It’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancelation of classes and graduation — none of this is a peaceful protest.

“Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law. Dissent is essential to democracy but dissent must never lead to disorder or to denying the rights of others so students can finish the semester and their college education.”

He continued, “There should be no place on any campus, no place in America, for antisemitism or threats of violence against Jewish students. There is no place for hate speech or violence of any kind, whether it’s antisemitism, Islamophobia or discrimination against Arab Americans or Palestinian Americans.”

Capito said college leaders should go farther in regaining control of campuses.

“When you see the aftermath of the destruction that these protesters went through, I think they ought to expel every student that’s involved with that, every professor should be fired and the federal funds should be withdrawn because it is breaking the law,” Capito said.

Capito said she had not yet seen Biden’s remarks but, “I hope he came out really strong today because this situation, if you don’t nip it in the bud, you can see it’s growing and growing and who knows what a hot summer is going to bring.

“Some of the slogans that these protesters are advocating for are things that were, you know, in Nazi Germany. I mean, how can this be happening? We need to protect our Jewish friends and family from this oppressive antisemitism.”

Rabbi Joshua Lief of Temple Shalom in Wheeling said on MetroNews’ “Talkline” today said some of the chants on college campuses are heartbreaking.

“Calling for the death of all Jews everywhere is pretty horrible, and it’s doubly heartbreaking that the administrators of some colleges can’t determine that that’s hateful speech,” Lief said.

He said college leaders have been slow to push back on some of the protest activity.

“I think that just as they don’t wish to impinge on the free speech rights of the students who are protesting, they have an equal — if not greater — responsibility to protect the physical safety of the Jewish students who are being targeted and threatened and in some cases attacked,” Lief said.

“I don’t think the situation is a peaceful protest when you have people violently taking over private property and barricading themselves in it and threatening physical harm against those who are Jewish, regardless of their views on Israel. It’s pretty horrible.”