Pro-Palestine USF group sues DeSantis, university officials over deactivation order

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The University of South Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is suing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, USF officials and the state university system over an order disbanding the group.

USF’s chapter joins the University of Florida’s advocacy group in suing the state, claiming the Chancellor of the State University System, Ray Rodrigues, is violating the First Amendment rights of an organization that promotes peace.

Rodrigues alleged Students for Justice in Palestine is pro-Hamas and backs a “terrorist organization,” according to a letter sent to university presidents last month. In his order, Rodrigues cited a statement from the national SJP group as its basis.

In the UF lawsuit, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) allege that Rodrigues’ order is a “serious and stigmatizing allegation,” based solely on the national chapter’s statements. According to both the UF and USF lawsuits, the local and the national chapters have no relationship “other than sharing the ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ name.”

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“Local student group chapters cannot be punished for their association with their separate, national organization – nor can the government selectively punish and censor student groups for engaging in speech it doesn’t like or agree with,” the ACLU posted on X.

USF SJP has organized several protests in response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in the weeks since Hamas militants launched a surprise attack, killing 1,200 people and taking over 200 hostages. The death toll in Gaza recently reached 13,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, including at least 5,500 children.

The civilian death toll has drawn condemnation from the international community.

“Staggering and unacceptable,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said of the deaths on Sunday, once again asking for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

The Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a prominent Muslim civil rights organization, discussed the chancellor’s order and the complaint filed on behalf of the USF student group in a news conference Tuesday. Their attorneys said it is not just Muslim students coming together to support Palestinians – it’s a coalition of students from all faiths and backgrounds, including Jewish people.

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“Let us be real, in Florida, student groups who express criticism of Israel’s government are neither antisemitic, nor are they terror supporters,” CAIR-Florida lead attorney Omar Saleh said in a statement. “We don’t believe the government can legally squelch USF’s SJP for criticisms that are unfavorable to it.”

On the presidential campaign trail, DeSantis has touted his administration’s takeover of the state university system, which he claims “indoctrinates” Florida’s young adults with “woke ideology” and silences conservative voices. CAIR believes the state is attempting to silence students, in part, to deflect criticism from the Israeli government and its military.

“Governor Desantis is asking young Americans to sacrifice their freedom here in the United States to shield a foreign government from criticism,” CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas said. “These students are standing up for all of our rights to condemn the atrocities we see with our own eyes.”

Earlier this month, DeSantis denied that the order violates free speech and accused the student group of “providing material support for terrorism.”

“We’re not throttling free speech at all,” DeSantis told Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade. “I mean, these groups, Students for Justice [in] Palestine, they have said that they are in cahoots with Hamas.”

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“They say, ‘We don’t just stand in solidarity,’ that this is, ‘We’re in cahoots with them,” DeSantis continued. “So, the state of Florida, through our universities, we cannot be subsidizing those groups. I mean, that’s basically providing material support for terrorism.”

Attorney Roza Tawil of Erchid Law called Florida’s deactivation order and its alleged First Amendment violations, “a threat to every American and American values as a whole.” She warned of a potential “slippery slope” effect if officials continue to label student groups “terrorists” for their political speech.

“This is a despicable attempt on behalf of politicians to silence opinions they disagree with and to foster a homogeneous people by eliminating the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that the Supreme Court has ruled the school environment must be,” Tawil said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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