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Florida officials are facing a lawsuit, ACLU says they violated students' First Amendment rights

Two dark pillars surround students walking outdoors with a large red brick belltower in the background.
Rachael Gregory
Fresh Take Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials are facing a lawsuit from the University of Florida chapter of 'Students for Justice in Palestine." The ACLU is filing suit over the order to ban the group from universities, saying it violates students' First Amendment rights.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and more state officials are facing a lawsuit over a ban on a pro-Palestinian student group. ACLU officials said the order is a "blatant violation of the First Amendment."

Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida officials are facing a lawsuit over the state’s order to ban university chapters of ‘Students for Justice in Palestine.’ The American Civil Liberties Union filed the complaint Thursday in federal court.

Lawyers for the ACLU said the order "was a perfectly blatant violation of the First Amendment." Senior staff attorney Brian Hauss said it reminded him of the Joe McCarthy "Red Scare" from the 1950s.

"(The order) exhibits two of the classic sins of the McCarthy era — the first is guilt by association, and the second is viewpoint discrimination," he said. "And so this is exactly the kind of lawsuit that the ACLU exists to bring."

The ACLU, ACLU of Florida, and Palestine Legal are representing the University of Florida chapter of the group. The order initially barred UF SJP because of its alleged affiliations with the National SJP — whom the state said have ties with Hamas.

"UF SJP is affiliated with, but fully autonomous from, both NSJP and other SJP chapters around the country," the lawsuit said.

It adds that UF SJP receives no funding from the national group or pays any dues.

The complaint names DeSantis, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues and the Board of Governors, University of Florida President Ben Sasse, and the UF Board of Trustees as defendants.

"The Deactivation Order casts a significant chill on UF SJP's activities, causing its Board and members to think twice before organizing and advocating for Palestine," according to the filing.

It adds the "prospect of disbandment and potential investigation, including felony investigation," has hampered the group's ability to organize and advocate as allowed by their First Amendment rights.

Leading up to the lawsuit

Rodrigues sent a letter to college presidents last month directing them to ban the student group "based on the National SJP's support of terrorism," adding the order was issued "in consultation" with the governor.

The ACLU then sent a letter to about 650 universities nationwide urging them to reject the language of the state's claim the SJP provided "material support to terrorism."

ACLU officials previously told WUSF the ban, in effect, charged members of the student group with serious crimes.

"What (DeSantis) has done is to hear political advocacy that offended him or offended some constituency, and immediately jumped to the conclusion, without a shred of evidence, that the student advocacy constituted 'material support for terrorism,'" ACLU of Florida interim director Howard Simon said.

"What the governor has also done is charged these students with both a state and a federal felony."

DeSantis then touted his success in shutting down the state's chapters of the group at the Republican Presidential debate on Nov. 8.

“I already acted in Florida. We had a group, ‘Students for Justice in Palestine.’ They said they are common cause with Hamas. They said, ‘We’re not just in solidarity, this is what we are.’ We deactivated them. We’re not gonna use state tax dollars to fund jihad. No way," the governor said during the debate.

However, Rodrigues said the student groups were still in operation during a Florida Board of Governors meeting the next day.

The University of South Florida and UF chapters told the board they were not part of the larger, national group, according to Rodrigues. He added the pair received legal advice on the matter.

"In short, they raise concerns about potential personal liability for university actors who deactivate the student registered organizations," Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues added the board would be pursuing legal advice of its own, as well as seeking affirmation from the university chapters they reject Hamas and violence.

"It's completely offensive and completely stigmatizing for Chancellor Rodriguez and Gov. DeSantis to force our clients to disavow positions or associations that they've never claimed to possess," Hauss said.

And despite the "pause" on the ban, the ACLU said they have seen no public indication of it.

However, in a statement to WUSF, the governor's office continues to say the group has been barred.

"Groups that claim to be part of a foreign terrorist movement have no place on our university campuses. The governor was right to disband a group that provides material support to a terrorist organization," DeSantis' Dep. Press Secretary Julia Friedland said Friday.

"Our client's First Amendment rights are being infringed right now. And at any moment, the university could come in and disband the group for the deactivation order," Hauss said.

"The government cannot force a person to disavow certain beliefs or to disavow their political associations as a condition of receiving a government benefit. And it especially cannot do that if the consequences of refusing to disavow are to punish somebody."

While no SJP in Florida has been officially banned, other private universities have barred the group — Brandeis University in Massachusetts and Columbia University in New York.

Columbia also suspended the student group 'Jewish Voice for Peace.'

State lawmakers propose similar bills

Senate and House Republicans filed nearly identical bills reminiscent of the order to ban the SJP. In the proposals, public university students would be financially penalized if found to "promote a foreign terrorist organization," like Hamas.

The bills would require students to pay out-of-state tuition rates and lose eligibility for state grants, financial aid, and scholarships. In addition, "certain student information" would be reported to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Hauss said there are two fundamental problems with the language used in the proposed legislation. First, it discriminates against students' viewpoints.

Second, he said, the bills don't define the term "promote."

"(That) can mean just about anything. And so to put students and student groups at the sufferance of whatever an enforcement official happens to believe constitutes speech promoting a terrorist group or something like that is going to chill a lot more speech," he said.

The proposed legislation is up for consideration during the 2024 legislative session, which begins in January.

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.