A judge rules against pro-Palestine student groups in Florida

Palestine flag. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News.

By Dara Kam ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge on Wednesday refused to issue injunctions sought by pro-Palestinian student groups in First Amendment lawsuits against the state amid the war between Israel and Hamas, saying the students hadn’t shown that their speech has been chilled or that they face imminent punishment.

Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida and Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of South Florida filed lawsuits in November alleging that efforts by Gov. Ron DeSantis and state university leaders to disband the groups violated their First Amendment rights.

The lawsuits came after state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues issued an October memorandum to university presidents linking the organizations to the National Students for Justice in Palestine.

Rodrigues’ memo said the national group had released a “toolkit” supporting Hamas combatants’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed about 1,200 Israelis and set off the deadly war that has included Israel leveling large parts of Gaza. The memo also pointed to a state law that makes it a crime to provide material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations.

The lawsuits were filed against Rodrigues, the state university system Board of Governors and DeSantis. Lawyers for the state officials asked Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to dismiss the cases, arguing that only the universities’ boards of trustees — not DeSantis or Rodrigues — had the power to deactivate the groups. The universities have remained silent but have not taken actions against the student organizations.

Walker, who heard arguments last week in the lawsuits, on Wednesday dismissed DeSantis as a defendant and rejected the groups’ request for preliminary injunctions to block efforts to dismantle them.

“In short, the record demonstrates that neither deactivation nor criminal investigation is imminent. Instead, this court finds that no actions have been taken in pursuit of deactivation under the chancellor’s memorandum. And, as this court has already found, the defendants with legal authority to directly regulate registered student organizations do not intend to deactivate plaintiff,” Walker wrote in a 15-page ruling in the UF case.

During last week’s arguments, lawyers for the student groups told Walker that Rodrigues’ “deactivation order” had caused a “chilling” effect and made students afraid to be associated with the organizations and participate in their activities.

But Walker on Wednesday noted that students were still meeting and speaking out.

“This court’s finding is based on the fact that nobody introduced any evidence of additional actions the university took in furtherance of the memorandum before plaintiff filed its complaint,” the judge wrote.

Walker pointed to comments Rodrigues made at a Nov. 9 Board of Governors meeting, where the chancellor said that university officials hadn’t taken any action to dismantle the groups. Rodrigues at the time also said both universities had obtained legal opinions raising concerns about “potential personal liability for university actors” charged with dismantling the groups.

“Ultimately, the evidence before this court demonstrates that ‘deactivation’ remains simply an amorphous threat contingent upon either the BOT (university board of trustees) reevaluating its aversion to possibly incurring personal liability or the BOG (board of governors) taking some action to pass a new regulation to take back its delegation of authority over student organizations. Absent any evidence to suggest either of these future contingencies are imminent, the asserted injury of threatened deactivation remains merely speculative,” Walker concluded.

Walker also said the record “is devoid of any evidence” that the student groups’ members have self-censored.

The plaintiffs filed a declaration from a member of one of the groups saying that the organization’s members and prospective members were “scared,” “disheartened,” and “disappointed” following the October memo.

“But evidence of subjective fear or anxiety, on its own, does not give rise to a cognizable constitutional injury,” Walker wrote.

An attorney representing the University of Florida student group said Walker’s ruling signaled to higher-education officials that they should not interfere with the organizations.

“Florida officials are now on notice that if they attempt to enforce the deactivation order, we will be back in court to uphold our client’s First Amendment rights,” Brian Hauss, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a prepared statement. “The chancellor should formally acknowledge that the deactivation order will not be enforced by removing it from his official website.”

In dismissing DeSantis from the lawsuits, Walker found that the plaintiffs failed to show that an injunction against the governor would have any effect.

“Plaintiff’s factual allegations fail to demonstrate that an injunction against the governor would redress plaintiff’s asserted injuries when the governor has no authority to ‘enforce’ the chancellor’s memorandum, discipline student organizations, or retract the chancellor’s memorandum,” the judge wrote.

At the same time, Walker chided DeSantis for making repeated comments linking the student groups to terrorism.

“This court does not fault plaintiff’s members for feeling anxious about the fact that the governor — arguably the most powerful man in Florida — has repeatedly disparaged plaintiff’s members as ‘terrorists’ who support ‘jihad’ and repeated the falsehood that their organization has been ‘deactivated.’ But this court rejects (plaintiff) counsel’s suggestion that it should infer that because students are fearful, that means that they are going to self-censor or continue to speak under the threat of future punishment,” Walker wrote.

In a news release Wednesday, the Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida group said its members “have had to look over our shoulders, knowing we are under threat of being shut down at any minute” in response to Rodrigues’ memo.

“We refuse to let those in power intimidate us into staying silent, and hope that our lawsuit to protect our First Amendment rights will give heart to other students speaking out for Palestinian rights and calling for an end to the current violence in Gaza,” the group said.

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