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Speaker Johnson calls on Columbia University president to resign and threatens federal funding for colleges

Student protests opposing the war in Gaza have rocked the school.
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After a meeting with Columbia University President Minouche Shafik, House Speaker Mike Johnson called on her to resign Wednesday if she can’t tamp down Gaza war protests at the school and threatened federal funding for colleges that don't create safe environments for their Jewish students.

“We just can’t allow this kind of hatred and antisemitism to flourish on our campuses. And it must be stopped in its tracks. Those who are perpetrating this violence should be arrested,” Johnson, R-La., said on the steps of Columbia’s Low Library, flanked by several of his Republican colleagues.

“I am here today joining my colleagues and calling on President Shafik to resign if she cannot immediately bring order to this chaos," he continued. "As speaker of the House, I’m committing today that the Congress will not be silent as Jewish students are expected to run for their lives and stay home from their classes hiding in fear.”

Johnson's appearance was met by boos and heckling from the crowd. After he ended his news conference, someone yelled: "Get the f--- out of here!"

The protesters chanted “We can’t hear you" and “Mike, you suck!”

Students also chanted “Free Palestine.” From where Johnson stood, he could look out beyond the crowd of student protesters and see the tent encampment.

At one point Johnson shook his head and said, “Enjoy your free speech.”

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House Speaker Mike Johnson arrives to speak to the media after a meeting with Jewish students as pro-Palestinian students and activists protest the Israel-Hamas war at Columbia University in New York City on Wednesday.Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images

Johnson’s delegation met with Shafik and top university officials, urging them to do more to stop the harassment of Jewish students at Columbia and to end the pro-Palestinian encampment that has sprung up on the campus. Other college campuses around the country have been the scenes of similar demonstrations against Israel’s war in Gaza.

Johnson said in an interview after his speech that he respects the right to protest but that he thought the students on campus had crossed into harassment.

"It’s always nuanced to control to allow students a free marketplace of ideas and allow that to be unimpeded, and that is the role and responsibility of a government institution and even a private one," said Johnson, a former constitutional lawyer. "But in this case, the reason we’re here today is because this has crossed the line. And I think almost every American of good conscience and good faith understands that."

Responding to GOP calls for Shafik's resignation, the Columbia University Board of Trustees said in a statement Wednesday it "strongly supports President Shafik as she steers the university through this extraordinarily challenging time."

"During the search process for this role, President Shafik told us that she would always take a thoughtful approach to resolving conflict, balancing the disparate voices that make up a vibrant campus like Columbia’s, while taking a firm stance against hatred, harassment and discrimination. That’s exactly what she’s doing now," the board said. "We are urgently working with her to help resolve the situation on campus and rebuild the bonds of our community; we encourage everyone who cares about Columbia to join us in that effort.”

A rabbi connected with Columbia urged Jewish students this week to leave campus amid the protests, and the university soon thereafter said it was moving to hybrid learning to ensure student safety. Students have described being harassed and heckled as they tried to move across campus.

Asked by a reporter whether he agrees with some Republicans who have called on the National Guard to break up the Columbia encampment, Johnson said he plans to call President Joe Biden after his visit and “share with him what we have seen with our own two eyes and demand that he take action.”

“If this is not contained quickly, and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard. We have to bring order to these campuses,” he said.

He then issued this threat to colleges: “If these campuses cannot get control of this problem, they do not deserve taxpayer dollars,” adding that House Republicans will be working on legislation to address the situation.

Shafik testified last week before the House Education Committee about antisemitism on campus. On Wednesday, the committee's chair, Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., also threatened Shafik with congressional action.

"I have a message, President Shafik, and a message for you all, too: The inmates are running the asylum. Take back control of this once great institution," Foxx said at Columbia. "You took action last week. It’s time to act again. If not, the committee will pursue every possible avenue to create a safe learning environment for Jewish students."

Members of the New York Republican delegation — Reps. Mike Lawler, Nicole Malliotakis and Anthony D'Esposito — also joined Johnson at Columbia. Lawler said Shafik must resign.

"It is time for President Shafik to resign in disgrace. She has lost control of this campus. She has lost control of this institution. And after listening to her comments inside it is clear that she has no intention of getting this university under control and ensuring the safety and well-being of every student," Lawler told reporters.

"That is what is entitled to students attending this institution," he said. "If the students are not safe, if the institution will not act, Congress has a responsibility to do so, and we will."

Image: Pro-Palestinian Protests Continue At Columbia University In New York City
Student demonstrators occupy the "Gaza Solidarity Encampment" on the West Lawn of Columbia University in New York City on Tuesday.Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

Wrapping up his news conference, Johnson, a father of four children, offered a message for the students in the encampment.

"Go back to class and stop the nonsense there. Look, if we want to have a debate on campus about the merits of these things, let’s do that. But you can’t intimidate your fellow students and make them stay home from class. Think about that. Is that right? Do you think that’s right?" he asked.

"Stop wasting your parents' money," he said.