Ron DeSantis Goes After Campus Group For Justice For Palestinians

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Tuesday ordered state universities to shut down chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, a Palestinian advocacy organization.

The State University System of Florida, the body that governs the 12 public universities in the state, noted in a letter to university leaders earlier this week that the SJP chapters needed to be dismantled as part of “a crackdown on campus demonstrations” because of the group’s “harmful support for terrorist groups.”

“Based on the National SJP’s support of terrorism, in consultation with Governor DeSantis, the student chapters must be deactivated,” Ray Rodrigues, the system’s chancellor, wrote in the letter.

“It is a felony under Florida law to ‘knowingly provide material support’ … to a designated foreign terrorist organization,” the letter said.  

With more than 200 chapters across North America, SJP is a national student movement that organizes for “Palestinian liberation and self-determination,” according to the national chapter’s website. Conservatives have long criticized the group, claiming it supports the militant group Hamas and is antisemitic. SJP has denied those accusations.

Rodrigues wrote that SJP was active in at least two Florida universities, but he did not name the schools. The University of North Florida in Jacksonville and Florida State University in Tallahassee appear to have active SJP chapters, according to social media. 

Neither SJP National nor the State University System of Florida responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Students from Brooklyn College and supporters hold signs during a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the entrance of the campus on Oct. 12. Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP) held protests in colleges across the nation to show solidarity with Palestine.
Students from Brooklyn College and supporters hold signs during a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the entrance of the campus on Oct. 12. Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP) held protests in colleges across the nation to show solidarity with Palestine.

Students from Brooklyn College and supporters hold signs during a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the entrance of the campus on Oct. 12. Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP) held protests in colleges across the nation to show solidarity with Palestine.

The news has stirred backlash, with critics saying the move violates freedom of speech and unfairly targets Palestinian activism, particularly those critical of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel by Hamas. Americans voicing their support for Palestinian rights have faced online intimidation and have even suffered professional consequences from their employers or universities. A coalition of organizations, including the national SJP chapter, led a walkout on more than 100 campuses across the country on Wednesday in support of a ceasefire in Gaza.

Florida’s university system said it based its decision after the national SJP sent out a “toolkit” to its over 200 university chapters that allegedly referred to Hamas’ attack as “the resistance.” 

HuffPost was not able to verify that such a toolkit exists. 

DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, has vehemently endorsed Israeli forces cutting off clean water and other basic utilities in Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’ terrorist attacks. Last week, he said the U.S. should not take in any Palestinian refugees because they were “all antisemitic.” 

Omar Saleh, the managing attorney for the Florida chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, called the memo “disturbing” and said DeSantis’ action on SJP chapters  “should concern the nation.”

“All this is going to do is silence any campus participation and free speech,” he said. 

Equating the student group and terrorist organizations was “dangerous,” Saleh said, adding that the state’s rhetoric has the potential to silence other organizations or encourage hostility toward them.

Palestine Legal, a legal organization dedicated to supporting Palestinian activism and free speech, said banning SJP was unconstitutional. 

“Florida, particularly under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, has been actively undermining education, freedom of speech and social justice movements, including by banning anti-racist courses and trying to criminalize protest,” the organization said in a statement published on Wednesday. 

“This is a blatant attack on students’ First Amendment rights, and it will be challenged in court,” the group added.

Saleh said the students are currently working with organizations to explore their legal options. 

“This is beyond a matter involving a foreign conflict. This is affecting our Florida. This is affecting our country,” Saleh said. “These are American students who have these rights. This is about  our own freedoms.”