A pro-Palestinian student group on Thursday sued the state of Florida with help from the American Civil Liberties Union after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration moved to bar the group from state college campuses.
The federal suit, filed by the ACLU on behalf of the University of Florida’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (UF SJP), names the Republican governor along with the chancellor of the Florida State University System, Ray Rodrigues, and a number of other university officials.
Rodrigues issued a memo on Oct. 24 accusing the SJP of providing “material support” to terrorism — meaning support in the form of money or resources — without evidence. He ordered all SJP chapters operating within the state university system to be “deactivated,” stating that he had consulted with DeSantis on the matter.
In their lawsuit, the University of Florida SJP and ACLU argue that the ban violates the students’ First Amendment rights. They are asking a court to intervene on their behalf, citing precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which stated last year: “Nowhere is free speech more important than in our leading institutions of higher learning.”
Their move comes nearly six weeks into Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, prompted by Hamas militants’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that claimed the lives of around 1,200 people, including Israeli civilians and foreigners.
Israel’s aggressive response has thus far claimed the lives of an estimated 11,000 people in Gaza, the toll exacerbated by Israel’s reported targeting of buildings used by civilians, the BBC reports. The war effort has inspired waves of demonstrators to turn out in cities around the world in support of the Palestinian civilians struggling to survive in the war-torn Gaza Strip.
The lawsuit claims that the DeSantis administration’s “material support” allegation stems from a document created by the national SJP that, according to the student group, doesn’t dictate the beliefs or messaging of the local student chapter.
“The Order bases this serious and stigmatizing allegation solely on statements published by National Students for Justice in Palestine group (‘NSJP’), an independent organization, in a document called the ‘Day of Resistance Toolkit,’” the suit said.
The toolkit in question has sparked controversy for the way it seemed to describe the Hamas attack as an act of legitimate resistance against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and it has been used by Israel’s supporters in America to smear anyone who speaks out in support of the Palestinian civilians.
“According to the Deactivation Order, UF SJP’s only alleged offense is its affiliation with NSJP — which is constitutionally protected,” the lawsuit claimed, arguing that the students’ rights to free speech would be protected even if they had a stronger affiliation with the national group.
Since the Israel-Hamas conflict began to escalate last month, American authorities have noted an uptick in crimes apparently motivated by antisemitism or Islamophobia across the country. The U.S. Department of Education said this week it had launched investigations into seven schools in relation to alleged hate crimes.