By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) – The American Civil Liberties Union challenged Florida’s ban on pro-Palestinian university groups on Thursday, arguing in a federal lawsuit that the state is violating students’ free expression because of the U.S.’s stance on Israel’s war with Hamas. There is tension on campuses.
Florida’s university system, including Governor Ron DeSantis, last month ordered colleges to close chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. There is a group at the center of American campus activism.
The lawsuit — against DeSantis, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, and several state university system officials — seeks a preliminary injunction barring SJP from receiving school funds and using campus facilities.
At least two Florida universities – the University of Florida and the University of South Florida – have SJP chapters.
Students at US universities have clashed over issues raised by both sides of the nearly six-week-old conflict. Some accuse their schools of not doing enough to condemn anti-Semitism and others charge that schools ignore the plight of Gazans under Israeli fire.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Florida by the ACLU of Florida and Palestine Legal, cites a Supreme Court decision affirming the right of students to associate and speak on matters of public concern, and another case establishing that That federal law does not criminalize “independent political advocacy” unless it is done in coordination with, or at the direction of, foreign terrorist groups.
Brandeis University has also banned SJP indefinitely, and Columbia University and George Washington University have suspended the group. The schools have cited the national organization’s support for the Hamas attack and said their campus chapter violated school policies.
Student groups call the suspension and ban unjust. Video posted on Instagram shows Palestinian supporters rallying at Columbia and George Washington on Wednesday to protest the suspension of the SJP groups.
The University System of Florida said it based its ban on a “toolkit” issued to chapters by the national organization, which referred to the Hamas attack as “resistance” and said “deport Palestinian students are part of this movement.”
In his October 24 memo ordering the ban, State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodriguez said that the national SJP has described itself as part of the Hamas attack and that it is prohibited under Florida law from “providing material support to any designated individual.” Doing this is a serious crime. Foreign terrorist organization.”
Brian Hawes, senior staff counsel for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project and attorney in the case, said the student plaintiffs in the state university system were victims of “guilt by association” in the case.
“They are a completely autonomous and independent group that is in no way beholden to the National Students for Justice in Palestine,” Hawes said in an interview. He also said he did not believe the national organization could be found criminally liable for its statements about Hamas. ,
Israel says Hamas killed 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages in Gaza in the October 7 attack. Gaza health officials say more than 11,000 people have been confirmed dead in Israeli retaliatory strikes in Gaza.
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