The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Thursday claiming that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida education officials violated the First Amendment when they ordered the removal of support for Students for Justice in Palestine, a campus activist group.
The order affected the group’s chapters at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.
What the Lawsuit Says
The order, which hasn’t been carried out, has already cast a “significant chill” on the activities of the University of Florida’s chapter, “causing its Board and members to think twice before organizing and advocating for Palestine,” the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit also contends that the order by Florida to deactivate its chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine is based on claims about the national organization and not the local chapters.
In addition to Governor DeSantis, the lawsuit named as defendants Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System of Florida; Ben Sasse, the University of Florida’s president; and board members of the system and university.
A spokesman for the University of Florida said that it did not comment on pending litigation but in an earlier statement said that the university had not removed any student organizations.
Jeremy T. Redfern, a spokesman for Mr. DeSantis, said, “Groups that claim to be part of a foreign terrorist movement have no place on our university campuses.”
Why Florida Moved to Ban the Group
Two weeks after the Hamas attack in Israel, Mr. Rodrigues, who oversees the state’s 12 public universities, wrote to their presidents that the group’s chapters must be “deactivated,” meaning they could no longer access university space or funding.
The decision, which Mr. Rodrigues said was based on consultation with Governor DeSantis, was not based on anything the local chapters said or did but rather on what the letter described as the national organization’s “support of terrorism.”
The national group had released a “Day of Resistance” tool kit, describing the Hamas attack as “the resistance” and stating that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”
Mr. Rodrigues’s letter stated that providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations was a felony under Florida law.
Florida Isn’t the Only Place Cracking Down
Florida’s move against the Students for Justice in Palestine chapters comes amid a broader crackdown on the student group.
On Oct. 25, two pro-Israel groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center, a Jewish advocacy nonprofit, wrote to nearly 200 university presidents urging them to investigate their chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.
In the days that followed, Brandeis University — which is not affiliated with the Brandeis Center — announced it would no longer recognize the chapter because the national group “openly supports Hamas.” Columbia and George Washington University have also suspended their chapters.
While free-expression groups decried the actions, the First Amendment was not in play because those universities, unlike the University of Florida, are private.
The Free Speech Issues
Jonathan Friedman, a director at PEN America, a free-expression group, said that he had concerns about the crackdowns on the group, but that the Florida case was a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment. The statute cited by Mr. Rodrigues applies to economic or other tangible support to a terrorist organization, not to acts of speech.
“Rhetorical support is not material support,” he said.
At a Florida Board of Governors meeting on Nov. 9, Mr. Rodrigues acknowledged that there could be legal issues with banning the chapters.
Still, Mr. Rodrigues said that the board was seeking its own legal counsel, and that he was working with the two universities to seek “affirmation” from their Students for Justice in Palestine chapters that they rejected violence, were not part of Hamas and would follow the law.
Those demands are also illegal, Hina Shamsi, the director of the A.C.L.U.’s National Security Project, said.
“It is dangerous and divisive and offensive to ask a student group to proclaim its innocence for something it hasn’t done or said,” she said. “It’s compelled speech, and that violates the First Amendment.”