© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

University of South Florida Palestinian student group sues the state over free speech

Council on Islamic Relations press conference
Nancy Guan
/
WUSF
The Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, is one of the groups representing USF SJP students in the case against the university system. CAIR Executive Director Imam Abdullah Jaber spoke at a press conference on Nov. 21 about the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed in response to a State University System order to disband the Students for Justice in Palestine campus groups.

The University of South Florida chapter of "Students for Justice in Palestine" (SJP) is fighting back against a state order that called for the group to disband.

The USF SJP is being represented by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, the Erchid Law Firm and Mehri and Skalet, PLLC.

"We will resist any government or academic institutions' attempt to suppress our civil liberties. Our dedication to the principles of free expression will remain unwavering," said CAIR Executive Director Imam Abdullah Jaber at a Tuesday press conference at their Tampa office.

The lawsuit comes after the ACLU filed a similar case on behalf of the University of Florida chapter of SJP.

"For one, it's a huge mistake by labeling groups like these as terrorist sympathizers. And when you do that, when you label people who express views that are either pro-Palestinian freedom or critical of Israeli government, they're being lumped into a group of terrorist sympathizers. It's extremely dangerous, not just for stopping what the students might be able to do, but it also makes them a target across the nation."
Omar Saleh, CAIR-Florida lead attorney

On Oct. 24, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues issued a letter at the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis that called for Florida's 12 public universities to disband campus chapters of SJP for their affiliation with the national group.

In the letter, Rodrigues said the national group violated the state's anti-terrorism statute by providing a "toolkit" that referred to Hamas’ initial attack on Israel as “the resistance” and said Palestinian students “in exile” are part of the movement.

The lawsuits stated that the move violated students' first amendment rights and clarified that the student chapters are autonomous from the national SJP parent organization.

National Students for Justice in Palestine have also rejected claims that the group endorses terrorism.

Rodrigues has since walked back statements that SJP campus groups have been "deactivated," which DeSantis claimed at the Nov. 9 Republican presidential debate.

At a subsequent Florida Board of Governor's meeting, the chancellor cited concerns about "potential personal liability for university actors who deactivate the student organizations." He said that the Board of Governors is seeking legal counsel and will work with UF and USF on the issue, including receiving affirmation that the groups reject Hamas and violence.

A USF spokesperson confirmed that the school is working with the chancellor's office and that USF SJP has not been deactivated.

However, attorneys for the group said students' free speech rights have already been violated.

"While many suspect that this is a campaign publicity stunt, it still has actual detrimental effects on the students," said Roza Tawil, an attorney with Erchid Law. "Chilling speech is the same thing as preventing speech. They cannot choose a viewpoint on which to censor that is absolutely against the Constitution."

Tawil said that, since the order, USF SJP has not held any general body meetings and have only attended events hosted by other campus organizations. She adds that members of the student group have asked the Dean of Students Office for clarification on their status, but have not received a formal answer.

"So that's a definite level of uncertainty for the group," said Tawil.

The lawsuit states that USF SJP has no formal relationship with the National SJP, neither through funding or the payment of dues.

"For one, it's a huge mistake by labeling groups like these as terrorist sympathizers," said CAIR-Florida's lead attorney Omar Saleh.

"And when you do that, when you label people who express views that are either pro-Palestinian freedom or critical of Israeli government, they're being lumped into a group of terrorist sympathizers. It's extremely dangerous, not just for stopping what the students might be able to do, but it also makes them a target across the nation."

Saleh said CAIR has received an uptick in calls from students and residents experiencing threats and instances of Islamophobia for expressing support for Palestinians. Some have called him with stories about being reprimanded at work as well.

"We've gotten a marked increase in the number of case calls, reprimands, terminations," said Saleh.

The lawsuit names the President of the University of South Florida, Rhea Law, as a defendant, as well as Gov. DeSantis, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, the Florida Board of Trustees, and the State University System Florida Board of Governors.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.