Pro-Palestine protesters march at University of Central Florida

University of Central Florida students protest Israel's war on Gaza during an October 13, 2023 rally in Orlando.

(Photo: Paul Hennesy/Anadolu via Getty Images)

University of Florida Pro-Palestine Group Sues DeSantis Over Deactivation

"This attack on free speech is dangerous," said the head of Florida's ACLU. "Today it is pro-Palestinian students, tomorrow it could be any other group the governor dislikes."

The University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on Thursday sued state education officials and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over their move to deactivate the group for its support of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, apartheid, and other crimes.

The lawsuit—which was filed by the ACLU of Florida and Palestine Legal—seeks a preliminary injunction to block State University of Florida System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues' deactivation order, issued last month after Students for Justice in Palestine's (SJP) national body declared support for Palestinian "resistance" to Israel's war on Gaza.

SJP also asserted that the Hamas-led attack on Israel that killed around 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers was "not unprovoked" and said that Israel's "apartheid, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate bombing, arbitrary detention, destruction of infrastructure, [and] 75 years of settler-colonialism are provocations."

"Florida's deactivation order against a Palestinian rights student group for exercising its free speech and association rights is a clear First Amendment violation," Hina Shamsi, director of ACLU's National Security Project, said in a statement.

"We hope our client's brave decision to challenge state officials' attempt to restrict student speech sends the strong message that censorship in our schools is unconstitutional," Shamsi added. "There should be no question that independent political advocacy—no matter its viewpoint—is fully constitutionally protected."

Howard Simon, interim executive director at the ACLU of Florida, said:

If Florida officials think silencing pro-Palestinian students protects the Jewish community—or anyone—they're wrong. This attack on free speech is dangerous. Today it is pro-Palestinian students, tomorrow it could be any other group the governor dislikes.

We recognize colleges are contending with how to manage increased threats and rising tensions on their campuses while keeping students safe—and we take the weight and complexity of these challenges seriously. But it is precisely in times of heightened crisis and fear that government officials, including Gov. DeSantis and Chancellor Rodrigues, must remain steadfast in their obligations to respect free speech, open debate, and peaceful dissent on campus.

The U.F. SJP chapter asserted that "as students on a public college campus, we have every right to engage in human rights advocacy and promote public awareness and activism for a just and reasonable solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict."

"We know we have First Amendment rights in school and we're bringing this lawsuit to make sure the government doesn't silence us or others like us," the group added.

DeSantis—a longshot 2024 GOP presidential contender—stridently touts Florida as "the freest state in these United States" and a place "where woke goes to die."

The new lawsuit comes amid a nationwide campus crackdown on students and groups advocating for Palestinian rights and protesting what many experts call a genocidal Israeli war that has left more than 40,000 Palestinians dead, wounded, or missing.

Officials have attempted to justify targeting pro-Palestine groups by pointing to the dramatic rise in reported antisemitic activity on campuses. However, Jewish-led groups including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow have been among the most targeted organizations.

At Columbia University in New York, both SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace were suspended, prompting hundreds of students and faculty to protest both in the streets and in open letters condemning the move.

"Throughout history, students have been central actors in ending segregation, war, and apartheid—and Students for Justice in Palestine sits squarely in that tradition," Palestine Legal founder and director Dima Khalidi said in a statement. "It is precisely because these principled students pose a challenge to the status quo that they are being targeted with McCarthyist censorship, but the First Amendment simply does not allow for it."

"As the humanitarian crisis in Gaza unfolds, we can't let elected officials and university leaders stigmatize groups speaking out for Palestinian human rights," Khalidi added. "The voices of SJP chapters are more important than ever."

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