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Federal judge dismisses pro-Palestinian student groups' lawsuits

Two women stand and hold a Palestinian flag between them.
Kayla Kissel
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit involving the University of South Florida Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. A global strike in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza took place in late January 2024 with multiple USF student groups protesting on the Tampa campus.

A federal judge dismissed cases involving the Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at USF and UF. Both groups have the option to refile their cases or appeal the ruling.

A federal judge has ruled in the First Amendment case involving pro-Palestinian student groups on the campuses of the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.

Similar lawsuits were filed by both schools' chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine after State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues ordered they be deactivated.

Along with filing suit, attorneys for both groups also filed preliminary injunctions in an effort to block state and university officials from deactivating the groups while the case was ongoing.

On Wednesday, Judge Mark Walker denied both SJP chapters' requests to block the state from deactivating them. He said, while Rodrigues overstepped his authority, since the groups were still active, there was no reason to approve the requests.

Following the order, the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the UF chapter, said in a press release that state officials were "on notice," adding they'd be back in court if the deactivation order was implemented.

On Thursday afternoon, Walker dismissed all defendants from both cases, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rodrigues, the members of the state's Board of Governors, and both university's Boards of Trustees and presidents.

Walker's orders also gave the groups the option to appeal or refile their cases.

Read Judge Walker's orders in the University of Florida SJP and University of South Florida SJP cases

ACLU lawyer Brian Hauss said the court's denial was based on findings that state education officials were unlikely to take further steps to shut down the chapters.

“I think (the officials) are rightly afraid that if they do act on it, it would very clearly violate the First Amendment and it would potentially expose some of the defendants to personal liability,” Hauss said.

Council for American-Islamic Relations attorney Omar Salah represents the USF chapter.

He said the group believed the deactivation was imminent — particularly after Gov. Ron DeSantis said he had shut the chapters down during a Republican Presidential debate in November, saying he would not "use state dollars to fund jihad."

“That's why the lawsuit was filed. I don't believe it's a stretch to say that the move, at least from the governor’s standpoint, could have been political, because he mentioned it during his debate,” Salah said.

Rodrigues walked back his request during a Board of Governors meeting the day after the debate.

Rodrigues told the board that lawyers for UF and USF had said shutting down the student groups would "raise concerns about potential personal liability for university actors who deactivate the student-registered organizations."

Attorneys for the groups say neither school's chapter was looking for monetary gain, just a retraction of the order to deactivate.

For now, Hauss said they've achieved their primary objective — to prevent deactivation.

Salah said the state chapters of the group are in a better position than other groups nationally, "like Columbia (University), for example, where they're still suspended."

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.
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