Biden welcomes peaceful protests at college commencements, White House says

A protest encampment in support of Palestinians is re-occupied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden welcomes peaceful protests at college commencement ceremonies where he and other administration officials will speak, the White House said on Tuesday as pro-Palestinian protests spread around the country.

Columbia University on Monday canceled its main graduation ceremony after weeks of unrest roiled the Ivy League college's campus, but it will still hold smaller, school-based events.

The protests at Columbia have inspired similar demonstrations at dozens of universities around the country. Students have called for a ceasefire in Gaza and have demanded their schools divest from companies with ties to Israel.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden welcomed peaceful protests on campuses and elsewhere, but would continue to condemn hate speech, antisemitism or violence.

"It doesn't matter where he is, where he's speaking. It doesn't matter if it's a commencement or one of his events. He welcomes peaceful protests," she said.

"We have been very clear. We believe all Americans should have the right to peacefully protest," she added. "What we don't want to see is hate speech, violence."

Biden is due to give a commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta on May 19.

Biden warned on Tuesday that the threat of antisemitism is growing in the United States, including on college campuses, joining a heated American debate about Jewish security, Zionism, free speech and support for Israel, in the country with the largest Jewish population after Israel.

Biden last week address the campus unrest, saying Americans have the right to protest "but not a right to cause chaos" through vandalism, breaking windows or shutting down campuses.

Jean-Pierre reiterated the White House position that it should be up the universities to decide how to respond.

She condemned behavior captured in a video at the University of Mississippi over the weekend as "undignified and racist", after a student was accused of mocking a Black protester by making monkey noises during an anti-war demonstration.

"The actions in the video are beneath any American," Jean-Pierre told reporters.

The Democratic president, seeking re-election in November, has walked a careful line of denouncing antisemitism while supporting young Americans' right to protest and trying to limit longer-term political damage.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Andrea Shalal; writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Alistair Bell)