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Lawmakers call for cutting aid to colleges, banning deceptive masks in response to protests

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(The Center Square) — New York universities and colleges that permit protests by groups affiliated with Hamas and other terrorist organizations would lose state funding under a proposal filed by some Republican lawmakers, the legislation would also set a statewide ban on “deceptive” masks worn by demonstrators.

One proposal would require the state to withhold financial aid from degree-granting higher education institutions in New York that “directly or indirectly promotes, encourages, advocates, or engages in any terrorist advocacy or activities on campus.”

Another bill would make wearing a “deceptive” mask during a protest or public gathering a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to 90 days in jail. The proposal would also create a more serious offense of “aggravated deceptive” wearing of a mask if the individual injures someone or damages property. That new charge would carry a sentence of up to one year, under the proposal.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt says the package of bills is in response to the “unacceptable” rise of antisemitic hate speech and rhetoric on college campuses in New York and throughout the nation.

“There has to be real consequences to the folks that fan the flames of hate and anti-semitism,” he said in remarks on Thursday. “Unless the elected leaders do something about it, it’s not going to change.”

Ortt claims some of the groups involved with campus protests have connections to Hamas with the goal of cutting off investments to Israel after the country’s military response to the Oct. 7 attack by the terrorist group.

“They want to cause a division between the United States and Israel. That’s the goal,” he said. “This isn’t just about having fun protesting on college campuses.”

Elite colleges and universities like Columbia, MIT and Harvard have been the scene of anti-Israel protests in response to Israel’s war in Gaza, prompted by the Oct. 7 attack by the terrorist group Hamas that killed 1,200 Israelis and injured many others. More than 2,500 demonstrators nationwide have been arrested at dozens of college campuses.

Their demands vary by college campus, but most are calling for an end to the Israel-Hamas war and divestment from companies with ties to Israel or that otherwise profit from its ongoing military operation in Gaza.

Republicans said the bill would deny state aid to a university or college if their instructional staff “directly or indirectly promotes, encourages, advocates or engages in any activity on campus in support of a terrorist organization.”

“I remember being pretty dumb when I was in college. So I expect college students to do dumb things,” Ortt said. “What I don’t expect is for college university presidents and faculty, who earn healthy salaries, to be dumb. I don’t expect them to fan the flames of antisemitism and hatred.”

The proposed mask ban would prohibit “deceptive” face coverings by anyone who “loiters, remains or congregates in a public place with other persons so masked, or disguised while engaged in a protest, rally or other public assembly.” It includes exemptions for masking related to “religious observances” or entertainment and events such as masquerade parties, according to the bill’s wording.

To be sure, the package of GOP bills face long odds in Albany, where Democrats control the state Legislature and governor’s office. It’s unclear whether the bills will come up for a public hearing, let alone make it out of legislative committees for a vote.

In 2020, New York state repealed an 1845 ban on wearing masks in public places in response to the COVID-19 pandemic when state leaders and public health officials urged people to cover their faces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Many Republican lawmakers voted against the measure, not just because of their opposition to masking mandates but over concerns about public safety after the pandemic.

“New York’s mask law was enacted to prevent dangerous groups like the KKK and antifa from intimidating the general public,” Ortt posted on social media at the time. “By removing this law, even after COVID related health concerns have passed, we are opening the door to issues of public safety, and worse, acts of intimidation.”