CNN Wonders Why Johnson Cares About Anti-Semitism at Columbia

News & Politics

When Speaker Mike Johnson traveled to Columbia University on Wednesday to call for President Minouche Shafik’s resignation, he was joined by CNN’s Erin Burnett who sat down with Johnson for an interview on OutFront. Burnett would claim that it was a good thing Johnson was booed or the situation might have spun out of control and also asked him why he cares so much about anti-Semitism at Columbia considering it is a private university.

Previewing her interview, Burnett recalled, “They were, and I’m going to show you here, this is my cell phone video, chanting ‘Free Palestine,’ heckling, booing when Johnson called for the president of the school to resign. They were not friendly. They couldn’t actually hear the Speaker, which I can tell you is a good thing, because much of what he said would have incensed that crowd.

During the recorded interview, Burnett wondered if Johnson was overreacting, “The NYPD, at least as of Monday, said they’ve not received a single call from Columbia University of reports of any physical harm.”

Johnson pushed back:

But you have to speak to these Jewish students who are in fear of their lives, who are cowering in their apartments right now, who are not coming to class. In fact, the administration recognized the threat was so great, they canceled classes. Now they’ve come out with this hybrid idea, ‘Well, if you’re Jewish, maybe you do want to stay at home. Maybe you’d be better off for you.’ It is so discriminatory. It’s so wrong in every way. The responsibility of a university administrator is to keep peace on campus and ensure the safety of students — job number one. If they’re incapable of doing that, they need different leadership. I think this is time for a really strong hand.

Not convinced, Burnett tried again, “I’m trying to understand, though, why as Speaker of the House, this is an issue you would want to get involved with? It’s a private university. It’s an issue happening here. Why is this something that you are choosing to get involved in calling for the removal of the president of a private university?”

Johnson, again, held firm, “Well, they receive federal funding as well. And Congress is looking at all of these aspects to determine how they’re using those funds. Is that appropriate? If they can’t fulfill their basic obligations, I don’t think the American taxpayers want to be funding this kind of thing.”

He also noted that it isn’t just students, “We know that professors are engaging in this as well, some of their professors. Some have been supportive of the Jewish your students, but I believe it’s a small subset from what I’m told. They’ve allowed this to go on and it is not okay with the American people. This isn’t a partisan issue. This is about right and wrong, and we’ve got to call it for what it is.”

Burnett then asked, “And so, when — when people talk about genocide and say that Israel is engaging in genocide, do you think that that is a legitimate conversation that they should be allowed to have as part of First Amendment rights here, or no?”

Johnson reminded Burnett that he used to be a First Amendment lawyer when he answered, “when you shout down and physically threatened with intimidation and threats of violence the other side, that is not a peaceful expression, as peaceful — peaceful exchange of ideas. That’s something very different and that’s what we’re saying that they need to get control of.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Burnett would ask, “The main thing they were chanting was ‘Free Palestine.’ How is that anti-Semitic?” and “Do you think that protesting the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, protesting the tens of thousands of innocent people who have died there is anti-Semitic in and of itself?”

Both times Johnson would throw the blame back where it belongs: Hamas, but it should also be added that by “Free Palestine” many, if not most, of these people do not mean ending Israeli administration of certain parts of the West Bank. Rather, they mean Israel’s destruction and, yes, that is anti-Semitic.

Here is a transcript for the April 24 show:

CNN Erin Burnett OutFront

4/24/2024

7:57 PM ET

ERIN BURNETT: They were, and I’m going to show you here, this is my cell phone video, chanting “free Palestine,” heckling, booing when Johnson called for the president of the school to resign. They were not friendly. They couldn’t actually hear the Speaker, which I can tell you is a good thing, because much of what he said would have incensed that crowd.

BURNETT: All right. So let me ask you about that because when it comes to that, the NYPD, at least as of Monday, said they’ve not received a single call from Columbia University of reports of any physical harm.

MIKE JOHNSON: Well –

BURNETT: No physical harm.

JOHNSON: Right. But you have to speak to these Jewish students who are in fear of their lives, who are cowering in their apartments right now, who are not coming to class. In fact, the administration recognized the threat was so great, they canceled classes. Now they’ve come out with this hybrid idea, “Well, if you’re Jewish, maybe you do want to stay at home. Maybe you’d be better off for you.” It is so discriminatory. It’s so wrong in every way. The responsibility of a university administrator is to keep peace on campus and ensure the safety of students — job number one. If they’re incapable of doing that, they need different leadership. I think this is time for a really strong hand.

BURNETT: I’m trying to understand, though, why as Speaker of the House, this is an issue you would want to get involved with? It’s a private university. It’s an issue happening here. Why is this something that you are choosing to get involved in calling for the removal of the president of a private university?

JOHNSON: Well, they receive federal funding as well. And Congress is looking at all of these aspects to determine how they’re using those funds. Is that appropriate? If they can’t fulfill their basic obligations, I don’t think the American taxpayers want to be funding this kind of thing.

We know that professors are engaging in this as well, some of their professors. Some have been supportive of the Jewish your students, but I believe it’s a small subset from what I’m told. They’ve allowed this to go on and it is not okay with the American people. This isn’t a partisan issue. This is about right and wrong, and we’ve got to call it for what it is.

BURNETT: And so, when — when people talk about genocide and say that Israel is engaging in genocide, do you think that that is a legitimate conversation that they should be allowed to have as part of First Amendment rights here, or no?

JOHNSON: Of course, look, I was a First Amendment lawyer for 20 years, I went to the courts and defendant the — our First Amendment freedoms, religious expression, the right of free speech on campus. I litigated those cases.

Of course, the university is supposed to be the free marketplace of ideas. But when you shout down and physically threatened with intimidation and threats of violence the other side, that is not a peaceful expression, as peaceful — peaceful exchange of ideas. That’s something very different and that’s what we’re saying that they need to get control of.

When they camp out around the campus and they prevent students from exercising their rights, that’s the problem. 

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