Pro-Palestine Student Group in Florida Sues University System to Prevent Unconstitutional Deactivation
University of Florida’s Students for Justice in Palestine is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, and Palestine Legal
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (UF SJP) filed a lawsuit today challenging the Chancellor of the State University System of Florida’s order to state universities to deactivate the student group. Contrary to recent media reports, the deactivation order remains in place today.
In response, the lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction to block the deactivation order from going into effect, arguing that Chancellor Ray Rodrigues and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to effectively punish local student groups for their association with a national group is a clear violation of the constitutional rights to free speech and association.
“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” said the University of Florida’s Students for Justice in Palestine. “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.”
For decades, students have participated in and benefited from the marketplace of ideas on college campuses, particularly with respect to pressing and divisive social and political issues. And the Supreme Court has long recognized that right. As the complaint explains, the deactivation order violates UF SJP’s First Amendment freedoms by censoring its speech and association, and also runs afoul of the First Amendment’s protection against viewpoint-based restrictions on speech and association.
“Florida’s deactivation order against a Palestinian rights student group for exercising its free speech and association rights is a clear First Amendment violation,” said Hina Shamsi, director of ACLU’s National Security Project. “We hope our client’s brave decision to challenge state officials’ attempt to restrict student speech sends the strong message that censorship in our schools is unconstitutional. There should be no question that independent political advocacy — no matter its viewpoint — is fully constitutionally protected.”
The looming deactivation order has already cast a significant chill on UF SJP’s organizing and advocacy activities in support of Palestinian rights, at a time when the catastrophe in Israel and Palestine is a matter of vital public discourse. If enacted, the order will also deprive the group and its members of critical university resources and facilities necessary for the survival and operation of the organization on campus.
“If Florida officials think silencing pro-Palestinian students protects the Jewish community – or anyone, they’re wrong. This attack on free speech is dangerous: today it is pro-Palestinian students, tomorrow it could be any other group the governor’s dislikes,” said Howard Simon, interim executive director of ACLU of Florida. “We recognize colleges are contending with how to manage increased threats and rising tensions on their campuses while keeping students safe — and we take the weight and complexity of these challenges seriously. But it is precisely in times of heightened crisis and fear that government officials, including Gov. DeSantis and University Chancellor Rodrigues, must remain steadfast in their obligations to respect free speech, open debate, and peaceful dissent on campus.”
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.
“Throughout history, students have been central actors in ending segregation, war, and apartheid — and Students for Justice in Palestine sits squarely in that tradition. It is precisely because these principled students pose a challenge to the status quo that they are being targeted with McCarthyist censorship, but the First Amendment simply does not allow for it,” said Dima Khalidi, founder and director of Palestine Legal. “As the humanitarian crisis in Gaza unfolds, we can’t let elected officials and university leaders stigmatize groups speaking out for Palestinian human rights. The voices of SJP chapters are more important than ever.”
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.