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ACLU sues Gov. DeSantis over order disbanding chapter of pro-Hamas student group
A Students for Justice in Palestine protest on Oct. 10, 2023. Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

ACLU sues Gov. DeSantis over order disbanding chapter of pro-Hamas student group

Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration threatened last month to deactivate chapters of a student group that both celebrated Hamas' slaughter of thousands of civilians and claimed common cause with the terrorists. Although that deactivation has yet to happen and now appears unlikely, leftists nevertheless appear keen to chasten the state of Florida for even raising the possibility.

The ACLU and Palestine Legal filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming that Florida education officials and DeSantis violated students' First Amendment rights by ordering the deactivation of the University of Florida Students for Justice in Palestine.

The group

Students for Justice in Palestine is a network of radical anti-Israel student groups across the United States which reportedly began at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1990s. The national outfit, the stated aim of which is to ensure the hundreds of chapters are "connected, disciplined, and equipped with the tools necessary to achieve Palestinian liberation," disseminated a "Day of Resistance" tool kit days after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks, referring to the slaughter of thousands of Israeli civilians and dozens of Americans as a collective act of "resistance."

The New York Times noted that the tool kit, distributed by the group's national steering committee, instructed its various chapters to "ground our campuses & communities in a narrative which centers the legitimacy of resistance & the necessity of complete liberation."

"Challenging Zionist hegemony and popularizing our resistance is a critical part of advancing our national movement!" underscored the document.

The order

Late last month, the DeSantis administration took action against the group, noting its common cause with a group officially recognized by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.

At the governor's urging, Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, highlighted in a Oct. 24 letter to university presidents that the National SJP's toolkit "unequivocally states: 'Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.'"

"It is a felony under Florida law to 'knowingly provide material support ... to a designated foreign terrorist organization," wrote Rodrigues. "National SJP has affirmatively identified it is part of the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood—a terrorist led attack."

The state law Rodrigues referenced clarifies that material support or resources "means any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safe houses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel, or transportation."

The chancellor indicated at least two state university system institutions had chapters that "exist under the headship of the National Students for Justice in Palestine": the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.

On account of the head organization's support for and glorification of terrorism, Rodrigues — in consultation with the governor — called for the student chapters to be deactivated, noting that "[t]hese two student chapters may form another organization that complies with Florida state statutes and university policies."

In the Republican presidential primary debate on Nov. 8, DeSantis said, "[The SJP] said they are common cause with Hamas. They said, 'We're not just in solidarity. This is what we are.' We deactivated them. We're not gonna use tax dollars to fund jihad."

Despite the governor's indication, it appears the order may have been toothless — unlike the group's suspension by Brandeis and Columbia universities.

During a state university system board meeting on Nov. 9, Rodrigues said, "The constitutions of both organizations, which were submitted by them at the beginning of the school year when they were registered as an active student-registered organization, clearly state their organization is not subservient or under the national Students for Justice in Palestine," reported CNN.

"Therefore, the universities have not deactivated their university chapters of SJP," added the chancellor.

While the groups weren't deactivated, Rodrigues claimed the state would press both chapters to issue statements "that they reject violence, that they reject that they are part of the Hamas movement, and that they will follow the law."

The lawsuit

Although the order has not yet been executed on Florida campuses, the University of Florida chapter of SJP, represented by the ACLU and Palestine Legal, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on Nov. 16 challenging the potential group deactivation.

The complaint claims that the Florida Students for Justice in Palestine chapters have "no formal relationship" with the national organization other than the name they share in common. Furthermore, it stresses no evidence has been provided demonstrating the supposedly independent Florida chapters have signaled material support for Hamas.

"The Deactivation Order is unconstitutional for two reasons. It violates UF SJP's First Amendment freedoms by punishing it for its protected speech and association, including its association with NSJP. And it runs afoul of the First Amendment's protection against viewpoint-based restrictions on speech and association," said the complaint.

"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 UF SJP in a statement.

"Throughout history, students have been central actors in ending segregation, war, and apartheid — and Students for Justice in Palestine sits squarely in that tradition," said Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal. "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."

DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern responded, "Groups that claim to be part of a foreign terrorist movement have no place on our university campuses," reported the Times.

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