Florida disputes the First Amendment lawsuits filed by Students for Justice in Palestine at USF and UF

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Palestine flag. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state university system are trying to fend off lawsuits from pro-Palestinian student groups that allege First Amendment violations amid campus debates about the war between Israel and Hamas.

Attorneys for DeSantis and the university system last week filed documents arguing for the dismissal of the lawsuits and requesting that Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker reject preliminary injunctions sought by the groups Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida and Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of South Florida.

Walker is scheduled to hold a hearing Jan. 26 in Tallahassee.

The UF and USF groups filed the lawsuits in November after university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues on Oct. 24 issued a memorandum to university presidents linking the groups to the National Students for Justice in Palestine. Rodrigues’ memo said the national group had released a “toolkit” supporting Hamas’ attack on Israel that started the war — known as Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.

“These (UF and USF) chapters exist under the headship of the National Students for Justice in Palestine, who distributed a toolkit identifying themselves as part of the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” Rodrigues’ memorandum said. “Based on the National SJP’s support of terrorism, in consultation with Governor DeSantis, the student chapters must be deactivated. These two student chapters may form another organization that complies with Florida state statutes and university policies.”

The lawsuits contend that Rodrigues’ directive violated First Amendment rights and are seeking to prevent it from being carried out.

But in documents filed last week arguing against a preliminary injunction, attorneys for Rodrigues and the university system’s Board of Governors said UF and USF had not disbanded the groups. They also said Rodrigues’ memorandum is “not enforceable, and the Board (of Governors) cannot deactivate student groups.”

“The chancellor’s memorandum is akin to an open letter, much like the dozens of statements released by public officials across the country on the same topic over the last 10 weeks,” the documents filed in the UF and USF cases said. “The chancellor’s memorandum is no more actionable than these innumerable statements by other public officials.”

In his memorandum, Rodrigues pointed to a state law that bars providing support to terrorist organizations. Attorneys for the university system last week wrote that the memorandum “does not purport to prohibit, for example, speech or viewpoints critical of Israel or supportive of Palestinian freedom, nor does it support an inference that university regulations or Florida statutes do not apply equally to all similarly situated groups.”

“Faced with extraordinary tensions and fear on campuses and troubling indicia of disruption from SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine), the chancellor took a reasonable, proactive step based on policies and laws of general applicability: He exhorted universities to follow their existing legal obligations to ensure SJP chapters do not engage in the unlawful tactics that the national SJP encouraged them to deploy, or in other conduct that would violate university policies or state law,” the university system’s attorneys wrote in arguments joined by DeSantis.

But the lawsuits said the UF and USF groups do not have formal relationships with the national organization. The UF case said Rodrigues’ memorandum “advances unsubstantiated claims that Florida’s SJP chapters have violated the state’s material support for terrorism statute.”

“By ordering the deactivation of UF SJP on the basis of its constitutionally protected association with an independent group engaged in constitutionally protected speech, the order stifles UF SJP’s pro-Palestinian advocacy on campus at a time when the Palestine-Israel conflict is a matter of vital public discourse and concern,” the UF lawsuit said. “If allowed to take effect, the deactivation order will deprive UF SJP and its members of the resources, platforms and modes of recruitment that enable it to exist and engage in its mission.”

The UF lawsuit, filed by American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, said students on public university campuses have “the First Amendment right to speak and associate through the formation of student organizations.”

“The deactivation order denies UF SJP members the right to collectively speak and associate,” the lawsuit said. “The deactivation order unconstitutionally censors and penalizes UF SJP on the basis of its First Amendment protected association with NSJP (National Students for Justice in Palestine).”

During a Nov. 9 Board of Governors meeting, Rodrigues said the next step on the issue was “to seek legal guidance to evaluate some of the positions espoused on behalf of the universities and to gather additional information regarding the student groups’ compliance with laws and policies. Neither the chancellor nor the board indicated an intent or plan to take any further actions in response,” the university system’s attorneys wrote last week.

But the student groups’ lawsuits cited fears that deactivation could still occur.

Debates and protests have occurred on campuses across the country after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and as Israel has bombed Gaza in retaliation. Florida leaders have taken numerous steps to show support for Israel during the war.

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