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Pro-Palestinian student group at University of Florida sues DeSantis to block shutdown orders

A girl wrapped in a Palestinian flag stands on a bollard at UF
Gabriel Velasquez Neira
Fresh Take Florida
A girl wrapped in a Palestinian flag stands on a bollard as protestors advocating for the end of the siege on Gaza gather on the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street at the University of Florida in Gainesville on Oct. 25, 2023.

The lawsuit says out students' right to gather "is a fundamental precursor to their political and ideological expression.”

A pro-Palestinian student organization at the University of Florida sued state officials Thursday in federal court over what it described as an illegal order by the DeSantis administration to shut it down.

In a related legal maneuver, the group separately asked a judge to immediately block the state's efforts to shut down the chapter.

“The right of students to associate and speak through college organizations is a fundamental precursor to their political and ideological expression,” said the lawsuit by the Students for Justice in Palestine.

The lawsuit named as defendants the chancellor of the State University System, Ray Rodrigues; Gov. Ron DeSantis; UF President Ben Sasse; members of the Florida Board of Governors and the UF Board of Trustees.

The university referred inquiries about the lawsuit to the Board of Governors in Tallahassee. Officials there did not immediately respond to messages. "Groups that claim to be part of a foreign terrorist movement have no place on our university campuses," governor spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said in a statement in response to the lawsuit.

The student group was supported in its lawsuit by the ACLU of Florida and another civil rights group, Palestine Legal. The lawsuit sought a ban on the government’s order to deactivate the group and award it the costs of its lawsuit, reasonable attorneys’ fees and other expenses it did not specify.

The development comes as students in colleges and universities across the country continue to clash over the ongoing month-and-a-half long conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip.

Israel’s war against Hamas has roiled campuses to an extent not seen in decades in the U.S., with pro-Palestinian students demanding a “free Palestine” and an immediate Israeli ceasefire while Jewish and Israeli students charge are being victimized by antisemitism for defending Israel after Hamas slaughtered 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7 and took about 240 hostages, including young children, women and the elderly. The death toll in Gaza is estimated at 11,400.

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 lawsuit said the Oct. 24 order issued by Rodrigues violates the group’s First Amendment protections against viewpoint-based restrictions on speech and association, including the local chapter’s relationship with the national parent organization.

The group’s vice president, Mikaela Boelkins, 20, a foreign language and Arabic literature major from Lakewood Ranch, Florida, said the order to shut down her group scared and disheartened.

“Despite our fear of being punished, investigated and disbanded, UF SJP board members and I are still determined to stand up for our morals,” she wrote in an affidavit as part of the lawsuit.

DeSantis said during last week’s Republican presidential primary debate in Miami that he had shut down the chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine at the state’s flagship school, the University of Florida, and the University of South Florida in Tampa. That was not true.

"I already acted in Florida,” said DeSantis, who has made strong support for Israel part of his GOP presidential campaign. “We had a group, Students for Justice of 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 tax dollars to fund jihad.”

Rodrigues disclosed last week that the two universities sought their own legal opinions over the shutdown directive. Those lawyers warned that campus officials could face personal liability for following the governor’s orders.

A student stands over in an emptied Turlington Plaza Monday night, Oct. 9, 2023 after a scare caused hundreds of students to run from a candle vigil supporting Israel following the Hamas attacks.
Augustus Hoff
A student stands over in an emptied Turlington Plaza Monday night, Oct. 9, 2023 after a scare caused hundreds of students to run from a candle vigil supporting Israel following the Hamas attacks.

“We have reviewed those opinions, and in short, they raise concerns about potential personal liability for university actors who deactivate the student-registered organization,” Rodrigues said during a Board of Governors meeting last week.

UF has not yet provided a copy of the legal advice it solicited, in response to a request seven days ago under Florida’s public records law.

The DeSantis administration objected to a statement of support from the groups’ national parent organization that it was “part of” the resistance against Israel. Florida said that violated a state law against offering material support to terrorists.

 Legal experts said the order was almost certainly unconstitutional. They said those terrorism laws don’t prohibit independent advocacy or expression but outlaw specific conduct that includes expert advice or assistance.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at clairegrunewald@ufl.edu.