“As students on a public college campus, we have every right to engage in human rights advocacy and promote public awareness and activism for a just and reasonable solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict,” UF’s Students for Justice in Palestine said in a statement. “We know we have First Amendment rights in school and we’re bringing this lawsuit to make sure the government doesn’t silence us or others like us.”
UF’s SJP chapter also claims to be “fully autonomous” and have “no financial relationship” with the national organization as it attempts to operate as a “human rights advocacy organization” seeking “a just and reasonable solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict.”
The Israel-Hamas war has been a flashpoint issue at U.S. universities, with students and faculty accusing their schools of doing too little to denounce antisemitism while others want campuses to pay more attention to struggles of Gazans trapped in the middle. Schools in other states, such as Brandeis University, Columbia University and George Washington University have taken action against SJP groups, either banning or suspending them.
Brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the non-profit organization Palestine Legal on behalf of the students, the lawsuit targets a state university system memo ordering a “crack down” on campus events led by organization that the DeSantis administration claims amount to “harmful support for terrorist groups” like Hamas, which attacked Israel in early October.
Florida is targeting the groups over a “toolkit” published by the national organization that faced scrutiny in Florida and other states for labeling the attack, now known as “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” as “the resistance” while claiming that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”
By linking this document to SJP branches in Florida, the state contends that the student groups are violating a state law that makes it felony to “knowingly provide material support … to a designated foreign terrorist organization.”
The group, however, pushed back against the state’s claims that the students are associated with terrorism in the lawsuit naming as defendants DeSantis, university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, the Board of Governors over state universities, UF president Ben Sasse and UF trustees.
The DeSantis administration and Board of Governors did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Instead, they point to events they’ve held in the past, such as vigils for Palestinians killed by the Israeli military, social events showcasing Palestinian culture and food, even a Palestinian embroidery class. Shortly after the Israel-Hamas war erupted, UF’s SJP led a “teach-in” to illustrate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and demonstrate support for Palestinian human rights, an event attended by more than 200 students.
Events like these, though, could be at risk if the state deactivates the group, according to the lawsuit that argues the move would “significantly undermine UF SJP’s activism.”
“Instead of securely advancing its mission to advocate for the rights of Palestinians, UF SJP now finds its very existence in jeopardy,” the group alleges in the lawsuit.
The organization contends the state’s deactivation order unconstitutionally censors and penalizes the UF SJP in violation of free speech and viewpoint discrimination laws. In turn, they’re asking a federal judge to nullify the order and prevent the DeSantis administration from breaking up SJP groups.
Florida officials so far have been unable to officially decommission the UF SJP or another branch at the University of South Florida and instead now are asking them for pledges that “they reject violence,” “reject they are a part of the Hamas movement,” and “will follow the law.”
The lawsuit also takes aim at this attempt at state scrutiny, claiming that the “ultimatums” put UF’s SJP in an “untenable position.”
“Even if UF SJP were to comply with these demands, that would only open the door to further ultimatums constraining its constitutionally protected expression and association,” attorneys for the students wrote.
In another move attempting to sanction students in Florida, anyone who “promotes” Hamas and other designated terrorist organizations could have their scholarships, grants and other benefits yanked from them under a new bill proposed Wednesday by Republican lawmakers.