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Pro-Palestine Student Group Sues Ron DeSantis for Violating Free Speech Rights

“We have every right to engage in human rights advocacy” on behalf of Palestinians, the student group said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters in the spin room at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County on November 8, 2023, in Miami, Florida.

A pro-Palestinian student group in Florida is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other state officials over a decision last month to “deactivate” the organization, in violation of students’ First Amendment speech and assembly rights.

The University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (UF-SJP), a student-led organization that advocates for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, filed the federal lawsuit with help from Palestine Legal, an organization dedicated to defending the rights of people in the U.S. who speak out on behalf of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora. The chapter is also being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida.

Raymond Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University of Florida system, issued a deactivation order against UF-SJP in October, stating that the decision was made “in consultation” with DeSantis. The order instructed all personnel within the system to strip the group of official recognition, and cited unfounded claims that the national SJP had expressed “support of terrorism.”

Palestine Legal announced the lawsuit against the state on Thursday, stating on social media that UF-SJP was suing DeSantis and other government leaders in Florida and seeking a quick blocking of the action from a federal court.

“UF SJP’s lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction to block this unconstitutional deactivation order, arguing that it seeks to punish SJP over its association with a national group, in violation of their free speech and associational rights,” Palestine Legal said on X.

The legal organization noted that “local chapters of student groups cannot be punished for their association with national organizations,” and that governments cannot “selectively punish and censor student groups for engaging in speech it doesn’t like or agree with.”

In a press release, UF-SJP released a statement, deriding the action by the DeSantis administration.

“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,” the statement read. “We know we have First Amendment rights in school and we’re bringing this lawsuit to make sure the government doesn’t silence us or others like us.”

“This attack on free speech is dangerous: today it is pro-Palestinian students, tomorrow it could be any other group the governor’s dislikes,” said Howard Simon, interim executive director of ACLU of Florida.

Within the lawsuit, the plaintiffs note that the punishing action from DeSantis doesn’t cite any actual wrongdoing by UF-SJP.

“Incredibly, the Deactivation Order does not even purport to punish UF SJP’s own advocacy, instead basing its action on the presumptively protected speech of another organization with which Plaintiff has only a loose affiliation,” the lawsuit states, noting that the Supreme Court has, rejected universities taking similar actions for decades. Indeed, in the 1972 Supreme Court case Healy v. James, the Court decreed that a college chapter of Students for a Democratic Society couldn’t face administrative punishments due to affiliation with the broader national group, a direct parallel to the action that’s being taken against UF-SJP.

The lawsuit also noted that Florida’s justification for deactivating UF-SJP by citing the national chapter’s statements and actions is unjust on its own — while it’s alleged by DeSantis and others that the national SJP has expressed “support of terrorism,” legally speaking, punishments can only be implemented based on that broad reasoning when there is direct “advocacy performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization,” which has never happened.

“This Court should grant Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction prohibiting Defendants from enforcing the unconstitutional Deactivation Order,” the lawsuit adds. “The merits of Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim are straightforward, the irreparable harm to Plaintiff’s constitutional rights is clear, and the public interest will manifestly be served by a swift injunction against Defendants’ unconstitutional conduct.”

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