A federal judge weighs Florida’s effort to disband pro-Palestine groups at two state universities, saying “words have consequences”

Palestine flag. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News.

By Dara Kam ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — As the death toll continues to rise in the war between Israel and Hamas, a federal judge heard arguments Friday in a challenge to Florida officials’ efforts to disband pro-Palestinian student groups at two universities.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker spent more than two hours grilling lawyers representing the groups Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida and Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of South Florida, which allege that Gov. Ron DeSantis and state university leaders are violating their First Amendment rights.

The judge also scolded state officials for “running off at the mouth” and possibly contributing to violence against students advocating for Palestinians.

The groups filed lawsuits 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 latest — and deadliest — clash in the long-running dispute between the Jewish state and Hamas. The Palestinian death toll in Gaza has topped 26,000, according to media reports Friday.

Lawyers for the student groups on Friday told Walker that Rodrigues’ “deactivation order” had caused a “chilling” effect and made students afraid to be associated with the groups and participate in their activities.

Walker, however, pointed to comments made by Rodrigues at a Nov. 9 meeting of the university system’s Board of Governors and noted that university officials haven’t taken action to follow up on dismantling the groups.

At the Nov. 9 meeting, Rodrigues said both universities had obtained legal opinions raising concerns about “potential personal liability for university actors” charged with dismantling the groups. Rodrigues at the time said he was seeking legal input on the issue.

“Neither the chancellor nor the board indicated an intent or plan to take any further actions in response,” the university system’s attorneys wrote in court documents last month.

But lawyers for the student groups argued Friday that the universities haven’t pledged to drop the matter and that Rodrigues’ Oct. 24 memo remains on the chancellor’s website.

In addition, they said, DeSantis, who recently dropped out of the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has repeatedly boasted about dismantling the groups, which he said supported terrorism.

“We deactivated them. We’re not going to use state tax dollars to fund jihad,” DeSantis said during a Republican presidential debate in November.

Despite inaction by university officials months after Rodrigues’ memo, the students remain concerned about retaliation, Brian Hauss, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents the UF student group, argued Friday.

“When the governor goes out and gives a statement to the press that says, ‘I was right to disband this group for material support of terrorism,’ that suggests that this hasn’t gone away. This is still something on the governor’s mind, and that reasonable students reading that statement can still hear that these charges are being leveled against them,” Hauss said.

But Walker pushed back, saying that DeSantis could have been making “a political statement to keep people happy” by showing support for Israel.

Ashley Lukis, a lawyer for Rodrigues, argued that the chancellor lacked the power to impose penalties on the students and that the groups haven’t demonstrated that the memo has had a negative impact on them.

There’s “no record of plaintiffs modifying their behavior due to chill,” she said.

Walker repeatedly pushed the groups’ lawyers to justify why he should issue an injunction and what action they wanted him to take.

“What is the chill? What facts suggest someone is not saying something, not doing something, or is risking prosecution because they’re doing x?” the judge asked.

Hauss said that the memo has caused the UF group’s board members “to think twice” about holding events and about being identified publicly. The memo has “cast a pall of uncertainty and anxiety” over the students and prevented new members from joining, he argued.

Walker said the case hinged on whether the plaintiffs could show that the state’s actions had chilled the students’ speech.

“This is really what this case turns on. .. What in this record suggests … that the threat of deactivation, the fear of that, was reasonable and that it was imminent?” the judge said. “It seems to me there has to be some meat on the bone for it to be reasonable and imminent.”

Students could face felony charges if they are prosecuted and convicted of being tied to terrorism. The groups depend on university funding to operate.

Lukis told Walker the universities would have to go through certain processes to initiate sanctions against the groups.

“That’s the problem. Nobody’s done anything to start the ball rolling … that would suggest there’s a credible threat,” Walker said.

The judge did not issue a ruling Friday and did not indicate when he would decide.

But at the end of the hearing, he made comments directed at a handful of young courtroom spectators who were wearing keffiyehs and appeared to be students. Walker several times referred to three students of Palestinian descent who were shot and killed on campus at the University of Vermont, just weeks after Rodrigues released the directive.

“Words do have consequences. And that bears repeating. Words have consequences. And we have all kinds of people, all levels of government, running off at the mouth and there are consequences. And the consequences are those three kids that were shot in the head … not because of something they did, not because of some law they violated, just because of who they are and their identity,” Walker said. “And I’m sure the response of anybody who was engaged in hateful speech and attacking them would be, ‘It wasn’t us, it was a lunatic with a gun.’”

Walker added that the Vermont shootings had “nothing to do” with the Florida lawsuits.

“But I do want to let the students know that it’s not lost on me, that it very much matters to you, when people run off at the mouth and put your lives in danger. That said, the court’s in recess,” the judge, abruptly exiting the courtroom.

Speaking to reporters outside the federal courthouse after Friday’s hearing, Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, praised “the courage of the students to stand up to bullying public officials” like DeSantis and Rodrigues.

“There’s a second, bigger thing that this case is really all about, and why we are here, and that is to protect the role of universities, not just the students, but the role that universities play in American society, of being the place where you can have both vigorous debates about important social issues like issues of war and peace and the need to keep the public and politicians’ hands out of that,” Simon said.

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