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Two student groups at two Florida universities strike back at the state

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Two student groups at two Florida universities strike back at the state

Nov 28, 2023 | 6:34 pm ET
By Christian Casale
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Two student groups at two Florida universities strike back at the state
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University of Florida. Credit: UF website.

Two pro-Palestinian student groups at two Florida universities are fighting back against the state’s attempts to shut them down with lawsuits filed against State University System Chancellor Raymond Rodrigues and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at the University of Florida – the state’s flagship land-grant institution — and the University of South Florida — based in Tampa, respectively, have filed individual lawsuits against Rodrigues’ order that the groups be deactivated after the national organization expressed support for Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Rodrigues claimed that a toolkit distributed by the National Students for Justice in Palestine showed that group identified itself as part of a terrorist movement, in violation of a Florida law that prohibits providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

“These 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 wrote. “Based on the National SJP’s support of terrorism, in consultation with Governor DeSantis, the student chapters must be deactivated.”

However, there is one problem for the chancellor: neither group has a formal relationship with the national organization. Despite Gov. DeSantis claiming at a Nov. 8 primary debate that he successfully shut the student groups down, they are still in operation. UF President Ben Sasse, a former U.S. Republican senator, told WUFT the university had not deactivated the groups at the state’s request.

Here are excerpts from the two lawsuits to fight for each group’s continued existence, as the DeSantis administration has cracked down on academic freedom, campus autonomy, and free speech at Florida universities.

University of Florida 

“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.”

“Like the federal material support statute, Florida’s law applies only to advocacy conducted in coordination with, or at the direction of, a designated foreign terrorist organization. But in alleging that NSJP’s toolkit is evidence of material support, the Order does not cite any evidence of any such coordination or direction.”

“According to the Deactivation Order, UF SJP’s only alleged offense is its affiliation with [National SJP]— which is constitutionally protected. UF SJP has no formal relationship with NSJP other than sharing the ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ name—a name that affirms UF SJP’s solidarity with Palestine, and with other SJP chapters throughout the country.” 

UF SJP is affiliated with, but fully autonomous from, both NSJP and other SJP chapters around the country. Article I of UF SJP’s own Constitution states: ‘NSJP is not an umbrella organization of which we are a subordinate organization. Rather, NSJP serves as a coalition and networking group for SJPs and other like-minded groups on college campuses across the nation.’

“Also on October 10, UF SJP issued its own statement on its social media account ‘mourn[ing] the loss of innocent Palestinian and Israeli civilian life.’ The statement made clear that ‘the killing of any life is always undignified and heartbreaking,’ and asserted that ‘the root of violence, apartheid, and occupation under Israel’s far-right government must end for peace.’ The statement concluded: ‘We hope that no more lives, Israeli or Palestinian, are lost. We pray for those who are suffering.'”

University of South Florida 

Two student groups at two Florida universities strike back at the state
University of South Florida. Credit: USF Facebook page

“National SJP’s views and actions are immaterial to USF SJP’s First Amendment rights to associate and to speak; and Defendants have offered no evidence, and there is none, that USF SJP has ever provided any illegal ‘material support’ to any person or entity or acted at the direction of or in concert with a federally-designated entity.”

“The Deactivation Order does not even purport to rely on USF SJP’s advocacy. It singles out and punishes USF SJP solely for Defendants’ disagreements with National SJP’s philosophy or actions. National SJP’s views and actions are immaterial to USF SJP’s First Amendment rights to associate and to speak; and Defendants have offered no evidence, and there is none, that USF SJP has ever provided any illegal ‘material support’ to any person or entity or acted at the direction of or in concert with a federally-designated entity.”

“The Deactivation Order does not claim that USF SJP violated any state or federal law or university policy. The Deactivation Order does not allege that USF SJP adopted, endorsed, or used the National SJP toolkit. USF SJP was not involved in or consulted about the conception or drafting of NSJP’s toolkit. The Order calls for deactivating USF SJP based solely on accusations leveled against National SJP.”

“The Deactivation Order does not accuse USF SJP of any wrongdoing. Instead, without evidence, the Order postulates that USF SJP exists ‘under the headship’ of National SJP. That is false. USF SJP is fully autonomous from National SJP. USF SJP does not receive funding from National SJP.”

“On November 8, 2023, during a televised debate between Republican presidential candidates, Governor DeSantis falsely claimed that student groups at Florida state universities, including USF SJP, were affiliated with National SJP and that, as a result, they had been deactivated. Governor DeSantis stated that, in Florida, ‘[w]e had a group of Students for Justice of Palestine (sic). They said they are a common cause with Hamas. They said, ‘We’re not just in solidarity. This is what we are.’ We deactivated them. We’re not gonna use tax dollars to fund jihad.’ The next day, on November 9, Chancellor Rodrigues said the opposite at a State University System Board of Governors meeting.”