Federal Court Rules Florida Officials Do Not Intend to Deactivate University of Florida’s Students for Justice in Palestine

ACLU, ACLU of Florida, and Palestine Legal Call on Public University Officials to Formally Withdraw Deactivation Order

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
January 31, 2024 2:30 pm

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida today denied the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine’s request for a preliminary injunction, finding that Florida officials do not intend to deactivate the Florida chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). UF SJP is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, and Palestine Legal.

“Florida officials are now on notice that if they attempt to enforce the deactivation order, we will be back in court to uphold our client’s First Amendment rights,” said Brian Hauss, senior staff attorney with ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “The Chancellor should formally acknowledge that the deactivation order will not be enforced by removing it from his official website.”

The court’s core ruling was based on Florida University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues’ public statements walking back the Florida deactivation order. The decision focused on Chancellor’s Rodriguez’s acknowledgement that the UF and USF chapters of SJP are fully autonomous from the national SJP organization — and that university officials are concerned about incurring personal liability if they were to enforce the deactivation order.

“Not implementing the Deactivation Order for fear that Chancellor Rodrigues and members of the Board of Governors would be held personally liable is a classic example of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons,” said Howard Simon, Interim Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “The Deactivation Order should be withdrawn — it should never have been issued — because it violates the free speech rights of university students and the important role that universities play in American life to vigorously debate all social issues free from censorship.”

In the decision, the court acknowledged the anxiety and fear that the student groups must be feeling, saying: “This Court does not fault Plaintiff’s members for feeling anxious about the fact that the Governor—arguably the most powerful man in Florida—has repeatedly disparaged Plaintiff’s members as ‘terrorists’ who support ‘jihad’ and repeated the falsehood that their organization has been ‘deactivated.’” But the court determined the Chancellor’s public comments made it clear enough that neither he nor the university had plans to act upon the deactivation order.

“Ever since the deactivation order was issued, we have had to look over our shoulders, knowing we are under threat of being shut down at any minute,” said the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. “We refuse to let those in power intimidate us into staying silent, and hope that our lawsuit to protect our First Amendment rights will give heart to other students speaking out for Palestinian rights and calling for an end to the current violence in Gaza.”

This lawsuit comes amid a troubling rise in calls for schools across the country to censor pro-Palestinian students and student groups for “material support for terrorism,” without any evidentiary basis, along with other extreme and discriminatory proposals to cancel visas and deport international students who protest in support of Palestine.

“Our clients are exceptionally brave but they, like most 19-year-olds, reasonably fear consequences when the most powerful figures in the state publicly take credit for shutting down their student group,” said Radhika Sainath, senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal. “Elected officials across the country are trying to chill and criminalize student speech supporting Palestinian human rights at a time when their words matter more than ever. SJP’s activism sits squarely in the tradition of students protesting against injustice, and we’re glad to see the court recognize that our clients are engaged young people speaking out for their community.”

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