Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has claimed that shutting down pro-Palestine student groups on state university campuses is not a violation of their free speech.
DeSantis discussed the state shutting down chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) during an interview with Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade.
“We’re not throttling free speech at all,” DeSantis said. “I mean, these groups, Students for Justice [in] Palestine, they have said that they are in cahoots with Hamas.”
The longshot Republican presidential candidate continued, “They say, ‘We don’t just stand in solidarity,’ that this is, ‘We’re in cahoots with them.’ So, the state of Florida, through our universities, we cannot be subsidizing those groups. I mean, that’s basically providing material support for terrorism.”
The governor said that this is “not a First Amendment issue.”
In October, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues sent a letter to university presidents ordering them to shut down their SJP chapters.
“In response, and leading up to a ‘Day of Resistance,’ the National Students for Justice in Palestine (National SJP) released a ‘toolkit’ which refers to Operation Al-Aqsa Flood as ‘the resistance’ and unequivocally states: ‘Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement,’” Rodrigues wrote in his letter.
“It is a felony under Florida law to ‘knowingly provide material support … to a designated foreign terrorist organization,’” Rodrigues continued. “Here, National SJP has affirmatively identified it is part of the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood — a terrorist led attack.”
Though Rodrigues accused them of a crime, he did not say if any students would be charged for their involvement with the organization.
“Based on the National SJP’s support of terrorism, in consultation with Governor DeSantis, the student chapters must be deactivated,” he added. “These two student chapters may form another organization that complies with Florida state statutes and university policies. The two institutions should grant these two chapters a waiver for the fall deadlines, should reapplication take place.”
The ACLU has condemned the effort.
ACLU Florida interim director Howard Simon said in a statement to WUSF, “The governor thinks that he is going to create peace on college campuses, and he’s going to be protective of Jewish students on college campuses, maybe of the Jewish community by silencing pro-Palestinian voices. And if that’s his position, he’s just wrong about that.”
“They’re being intimidated by being suspended from having a club, or a group, or their political organization being suspended from campus,” he said. “And in effect, if they read between the lines, being threatened with prosecution.”
Simon continued, “Political advocacy — which these Palestinian students are engaged in — as raucous as it might be or as offensive as it might be for some people, does not constitute incitement to violence, and does not constitute ‘material support for terrorism.'”
“A university campus is the place where, if there’s any place in America… where there should be raucous, uncontrolled, political debate, limited only by the fact that nobody has the right to make threats or threats of violence,” Simon said.
The move is also being condemned by Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).
“Students shouldn’t be compelled to disavow certain disfavored views in exchange for funding and recognition,” the organization said in a statement.
FIRE warned the directive was “a dangerous — and unconstitutional — threat to free speech. If it goes unchallenged, no one’s political beliefs will be safe from government suppression.”
According to a report from CNN, at Thursday’s State University System Board of Governors meeting, Rodrigues said that the groups had not been shut down.
“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,” he said. “Therefore, the universities have not deactivated their university chapters of SJP.”
Both of the universities have also obtained legal advice about the matter.
“We have reviewed those opinions, and in short, they raise concerns about potential personal liability for university actors who deactivate the student-registered organization,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues is now seeking “affirmation” from the groups that they “reject violence, that they renounce that they are part of Hamas, and that they follow the law.”
FIRE has argued that this is unconstitutional.
“Students shouldn’t be compelled to disavow certain disfavored views in exchange for funding and recognition. Compelling speech violates the First Amendment,” the organization said. “Worse, the selective application here to only certain student groups compounds the problem. Could the chancellor force pro-Israel student groups to renounce violence, citing the invasion of Gaza? Of course not. Likewise, it cannot force the pro-Palestinian group to renounce its views.”
The governor’s office responded to the news saying that it is “reprehensible to see some university administrators, after the fact, creating bureaucratic roadblocks.”
“We trust that the [Board of Governors’] steps today are part of an effort to see this directive through,” spokesman Jeremy Redfern said in a statement. “We expect our Jewish students will be free from threats on our campuses.”
DeSantis has previously been accused of violating the First Amendment by signing bills that aim to curb antisemitism and stop the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel.
Both bills were ceremoniously signed in Israel.