Ron DeSantis waves to a CPAC crowd by a large sign reading "not woke"

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes the stage in front of a sign reading "Awake Not Woke" at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 24, 2022 in Orlando.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In 'Disgraceful' Assault on Free Speech, DeSantis Bans Pro-Palestinian Student Group

"How is this not a blatant First Amendment violation?" asked one incredulous law professor.

In what critics are calling the latest attack on academic freedom by the administration of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the head of the state's public universities on Tuesday ordered the systemwide "deactivation" of a student group over its solidarity with the Palestinian people, who are suffering what many experts have described as a "genocidal" Israeli war.

State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues sent a letter to the presidents of the state's 12 public universities accusing Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) of condoning "terrorism" after the group's national body declared support for Palestinian "resistance" to Israel's war on Gaza and stated that "Palestinian students in exile are part of this movement, not in solidarity" with it.

The group also stated that the Hamas-led attack on Israel that killed 1,400 civilians and soldiers was "not unprovoked" and that Israeli "apartheid, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate bombing, arbitrary detention, destruction of infrastructure, [and] 75 years of settler-colonialism are provocations."

Rodrigues noted that it is a felony under Florida law to "knowingly provide material support... to a designated foreign terrorist organization," an apparent reference to Hamas—which the U.S., Israel, and other nations consider a terror group. However, many Palestinians and people throughout the Muslim world—including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—view Hamas as a national liberation group.

While there is no mention of Hamas in National SJP's declaration, it does hail Operation al-Aqsa Flood—the name of the Hamas-led attack on Israel—as "a historic win for the Palestinian resistance" to Israeli oppression.

"Based on the National SJP's support of terrorism, in consultation with Gov. DeSantis, the student chapters must be deactivated,” Rodrigues wrote in his letter.

The chancellor said the State University System and DeSantis administration would continue working "to ensure we are all using all tools at our disposal to crack down on campus demonstrations that delve beyond protected First Amendment speech into harmful support for terrorist groups."

According to the Tampa Bay Times, there are at least five active SJP chapters at the state's public universities: University of Florida (UF), Florida State University, University of South Florida, Florida Atlantic University, and Florida International University.

The UF SJP chapter blasted Rodrigues' "disgraceful" order to deactivate the group.

"Gov. DeSantis continues to disrespect American values such as freedom of speech to extend his political power," the group said in a statement. "To bend the law in this manner shows the utmost disrespect not only to any pro-Palestinian organization, but also to anyone who truly cares for political freedom and freedom of speech."

The legal aid group Palestine Legal called the pending SJP deactivations "a blatant attack on students' First Amendment rights" that "will be challenged in court."

DeSantis' recent attacks on higher education include packing college boards of trustees with right-wing allies inimical to the interests of minority and marginalized students; banning state funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and critical race theory education; forcing tenured professors to undergo spot reviews; prohibiting courses that teach "identity politics" or that "systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege" are inherent in U.S. society; and signing the so-called "Stop WOKE Act" in an effort to combat "wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism."

At the K-12 level, DeSantis has signed a so-called "Don't Say Gay or Trans" law to prohibit educators from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity; rejected an Advanced Placement African American Studies course for allegedly violating the Stop WOKE Act; backed a state history curriculum that teaches slavery was "beneficial" to Black people; and required that every book in public school classrooms be vetted by a state-trained "media specialist."

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."

Florida's crackdown on SJP comes as Israeli forces ramp up airstrikes and artillery bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip ahead of an expected major ground invasion. According to the Palestine Ministry of Health, Israeli attacks have killed at least 6,400 people—including more than 2,500 children—and wounded upward of 17,000 others while destroying over 177,000 homes and displacing around 1.4 million Gazans.

The ministry also said that 104 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 2,000 others wounded in attacks by Israeli soldiers and settler-colonists in the illegally occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

One of Israel's leading Holocaust scholars has called the relentless and indiscriminate Israeli assault on Gaza a "textbook case of genocide."

Earlier this month, UF president Ben Sasse—a former Republican U.S. senator representing Nebraska— lambasted students protesting Israeli crimes in Palestine as "abject idiots."

UF SJP retorted that "a campus where our students are insulted for standing against a genocide is a campus that facilitates an environment of racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab/Palestinian sentiment."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.