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Ray Rodrigues discusses free speech on Florida university campuses

Ray Rodrigues sitting at his desk during a meeting, behind a microphone
Florida Channel
Fresh Take Florida
Florida State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues explains during a Board of Governors meeting Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, why two of the state's largest public universities are pushing back against the DeSantis administration over its orders to shut down pro-Palestinian student organizations on campus.

The State University System chancellor responded on The Florida Roundup to controversial congressional testimony by the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania about antisemitism.

Earlier this month in Congress, the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce about antisemitism on campus.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) asked the presidents if “calling for the genocide of Jews” violated the universities’ codes of conduct.

The leaders’ answers got them in hot water; a letter signed by 74 members of Congress on Dec. 8 called for their resignation. Penn's president Liz Magill stepped down days after the meeting.

Florida University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues spoke Friday with Tom Hudson on The Florida Roundup. He was asked the same question about the state's universities.

Rodrigues did not give a yes or no answer, and his response was similar to those given by the university presidents.

“Well, what I'm going to say is on our campuses, we don't tolerate violence. We don't tolerate harassment, and we don't tolerate vandalism, period. That's my answer,” Rodrigues said.

During the congressional hearing, MIT President Sally Kornbluth said she has not heard calls for the genocide of Jewish people on campus. However, she said certain forms of speech would be investigated “as harassment, if pervasive and severe.”

Magill said speech, if it turns into conduct, can be harassment. And Harvard President Claudine Gay said the university takes action against “(antisemitic) rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct, that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation.”

Right before giving his response, Rodrigues said the three presidents were not equipped to lead their institutions.

“I think what we witnessed at the U.S. Congress from the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn was a clear failure, a failure on their part to acknowledge that genocide is never okay and that, while you have to uphold First Amendment rights for students, you absolutely have to defend your students from violence, from harassment, and from vandalism,” he said.

Rodrigues said students' First Amendment rights should be protected unless it leads to behavior like violence or harassment.

“So the courts have been very clear to protect First Amendment rights. But they've also been very clear that the First Amendment cannot be used to target individuals, to harass individuals, or to intimidate them," Rodrigues said. "We do not allow that to occur on our campuses. They have the ability to speak, but they do not have the ability to target individuals, threaten them, harass them, or conduct violence against them.”

The chancellor pointed out that, compared to public universities, private institutions can abridge First Amendment rights. He also compared Florida universities to those in other parts of the country.

“You've seen situations in other states where protesters have seized buildings and occupied them and prevented instruction from going on. Those presidents have said, well, this is free speech. That wouldn't happen in Florida because that is illegal," he said. "You have free speech, but you don't have the ability to impede other students’ ability to learn.”

Rodrigues’ comments come after he called to deactivate chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine at Florida universities.

In November, Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed the SJP chapters at the University of South Florida and the University of Florida were banned, but Rodrigues clarified they were still active.

Both chapters have since filed lawsuits in response.

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