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Free speech advocates are concerned with Florida's attempt to silence pro-Palestine student group

A protestor holds a sign that says, "Not war, it's colonialism; not eviction, it's occupation; not conflict, it's ethnic cleansing; not complicated, it's genocide."
Gabriel Velasquez Neira
Fresh Take Florida
A protestor holds a sign while marching with others advocating for and end to the siege on Gaza as they make their way to the University of Florida's Turlington Plaza in Gainesville on Oct. 25, 2023.

State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues sent a letter to Florida university presidents with instructions to "deactivate" a pro-Palestine student group on campuses.

A national free-speech advocacy organization is calling out the state for an order to disband a student group that supports Palestine.

In a letter to university presidents, State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues directed school officials to "deactivate" the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The National Students for Justice in Palestine provided a "toolkit" to its chapters. Rodrigues' letter said the group called the Hamas-led attack on Israel "the resistance" and asserted that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”

But Haley Gluhanich disagrees with his assessment. She is the policy officer for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

Gluhanich said the "toolkit" Rodrigues refers to is simply a guide to help the chapters organize and protest.

"(Rodrigues) believes that this guide to protests that (the NSJP) sent was 'material support for a terrorist organization.' And that's just not the case," she said.

"The statute that is cited in that letter is limited to providing property or services to a foreign terrorist organization. And while the guide does use rhetoric that students are part of this movement, it is just rhetorical hyperbole."

In the memo to the universities, Rodrigues said the decision to disband the student chapters is "based on the NSJP's support of terrorism" and is "in consultation with Governor (Ron) DeSantis."

DeSantis, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has been vocal about his support for Israel during the conflict in Gaza. Last week, the governor said he would send drones, weapons, and ammunition to assist in the fight.

DeSantis recently posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, that if elected president, any international student found protesting in support of a terrorist group would be stripped of their visas and deported.

“What the students want to do with protesting is a very clear, expressive right, and they have the freedom to do this," Gluhanich said. "Just everything is getting misinterpreted.”

Students held a nationwide protest calling to end the siege on Gaza on Oct. 25, including on the University of South Florida Tampa campus.

Gluhanich said FIRE is not taking a stand with either side in the conflict — rather for the ability of all groups to engage in civil discourse through their First Amendment rights.

The free-speech group sent a response letter to University of Florida president Ben Sasse, along with USF and other state schools, imploring them to ignore the Chancellor's order.

"They just kind of have it all wrong here and rather, this directive is just unconstitutional. It's unlawful, and it just really harms students' expressive and associational rights," Gluhanich said.

USF is still reviewing the order to deactivate the organization, according to Director of Media Relations Althea Johnson.

According to the memo, there are at least two chapters of SJP at universities in the state — UF and USF.

Searches on Instagram also found chapters at Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University.

The link to Florida State University's chapter says the site had been removed or was no longer working.

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.