Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida sues the state on First Amendment grounds

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israel palestinian Palestine solidarity protest in Tampa 15 May 2021. By Blannie Whelan/WMNF News.
Palestine solidarity protest in Tampa 15 May 2021. By Blannie Whelan/WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders and Ryan Dailey ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The group Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging the constitutionality of an order issued last month by university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues that targeted such organizations on Florida campuses.

The lawsuit, filed in Gainesville, alleges the order violated First Amendment rights and seeks an injunction against enforcement. The order and lawsuit came amid debates on college campuses across the country about the more than month-long war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Rodrigues on Oct. 24 issued a memo to university presidents ordering the deactivation of student groups that are chapters of the National Students for Justice in Palestine. He alleged that the actions of the national group violated a state anti-terrorism law.

But the lawsuit Thursday characterized Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida as having a “loose and informal affiliation” with the national group. It said Rodrigues’ order “advances unsubstantiated claims that Florida’s SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) chapters have violated the state’s material support for terrorism.”

“By ordering the deactivation of UF SJP (the University of Florida group) 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 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 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.”

Florida leaders have taken numerous steps to show support for Israel since Hamas launched an attack Oct. 7 that started the war. In his directive last month to presidents of Florida’s 12 state universities, Rodrigues said the National Students for Justice in Palestine released a “toolkit” that referred to Hamas’ initial attack on Israel as “the resistance” and said Palestinian students “in exile” are part of the movement.

In the order, Rodrigues cited a Florida law that prohibits providing materials in support of a designated foreign terrorist organization.

“And therefore, we felt no group operating under their charter or headship or control should be active on our campuses here in Florida,” Rodrigues said during a meeting last week of the state university system’s Board of Governors.

But Rodrigues also said campus groups had not been shut down and that the Board of Governors was seeking legal input. He said universities had received legal opinions that “raise concerns about potential personal liability for university actors who deactivate the student registered organizations.”

In a news release announcing Thursday’s lawsuit, however, the ACLU of Florida said the “deactivation order remains in place today.”

The debates on college campuses and elsewhere have focused, in part, on the Israeli bombing of Gaza and civilian casualties. The lawsuit pointed to actions the UF group has taken such as organizing a “teach-in to spread awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and educate the student body on how to show support for Palestinian human rights.”

The lawsuit came a day after two Republican lawmakers filed bills that could financially penalize state university and college students who back “foreign terrorist” organizations, such as Hamas.

Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, and Rep. John Temple, R-Wildwood, filed the identical proposals (SB 470 and HB 465) for consideration during the 2024 legislative session, which will start in January.

The bills would seek to penalize any student who “promotes a foreign terrorist organization.” For example, the bills call for such students to be required to pay out-of-state tuition rates, which are higher than in-state rates. Also, the bills would prevent the students from being eligible for such things as state grants, financial aid tuition assistance.

The bills provide a definition for foreign terrorist organizations that, in part, would apply to “Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad.” They do not define the word “promotes.”

In a statement Wednesday, Ingoglia said the Oct. 7 attack on Israel “pulled back the curtain and exposed the rampant anti-Semitism happening on the campuses of colleges and universities throughout this country.”

“In Florida, we will not stand for Hamas apologists advocating for the genocide of the Israeli people,” Ingoglia said. “Florida taxpayers should not be in the business of subsidizing the education of terrorist sympathizers who wish to do us, and others, harm.”

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