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Crackdown on campus speech in FL: Federal judge sets hearing in January on Palestine group at UF

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Crackdown on campus speech in FL: Federal judge sets hearing in January on Palestine group at UF

Nov 27, 2023 | 5:26 pm ET
By Christian Casale
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Crackdown on campus speech in FL: Federal judge sets hearing in January on Palestine group at UF
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University of Florida campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Florida state government’s crackdown on campus free speech and support for Israel in the country’s war against Hamas have conflated into lawsuits against state officials for attempting to shut down campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The SJP chapters of the University of Florida and the University of South Florida have filed separate suits claiming the order is illegal on First Amendment grounds. The UF chapter is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the USF chapter by the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Attorneys for the UF SJP have filed a motion for a potential preliminary injunction that could keep the UF SJP chapter intact while the legal process moves forward. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker set a date of Jan. 26, 2024, for an in-person hearing on it in Gainesville.

“[UF SJP] is likely to succeed on the merits of its claims and will suffer irreparable harm from enforcement of the Deactivation Order in the absence of preliminary relief,” the motion said.

This comes after State University System Chancellor Raymond Rodrigues wrote a “deactivation order” on Oct. 24 directing the presidents of UF and USF to deactivate their chapters of SPJ after the national organization expressed support for Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7 – called “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.”

“The Deactivation Order unconstitutionally silences and punishes UF SJP for the group’s exercise of its First Amendment rights,” the UF SJP’s lawsuit read. “The Deactivation Order also runs afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition against viewpoint-based restrictions on speech and association.”

Attorneys on the case for the Florida ACLU did not respond to The Phoenix’s request for comment.

In his memo, Rodrigues referred to a toolkit released by the National SJP that called for a “national day of resistance” after a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea.”

“We as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement,” the toolkit went on.

Rodrigues wrote that it is a felony under Florida law to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization – which Hamas is to the United States – and thus, “National SJP has affirmatively identified it is part of the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood—a terrorist-led attack.”

At the following Florida Board of Governors meeting, in early November, Rodrigues said that while the student-led organizations have no official charter with the national group, they still must agree to certain stipulations in order to remain functioning at their respective campuses. These included a rejection of violence, a rejection they are part of the “Hamas movement,” and a promise they will follow state law.

The UF SJP filed suit on Nov. 16, with USF SJP following on Nov. 20.

Rodrigues, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and each member of the Florida Board of Governors are named as defendants in both lawsuits. The two chapters also name their university presidents, Ben Sasse at UF and Rhea Law at USF, respectively, and boards of trustees.