ACLU says DeSantis is violating students' First Amendment rights
Gov. Ron DeSantis said during last week's Republican Presidential debate that the state had shut the groups down over concerns that they were affiliated with Hamas.
But State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues told the Florida Board of Governors on Thursday that the state chapters were still operating.
According to Rodrigues, the pair told the state they are not part of a larger, national group.
That led the universities to seek legal advice they turned over to state education officials.
"We have reviewed those opinions and, in short, they raise concerns about potential personal liability for university actors who deactivate the student registered organizations," Rodrigues said.
That's the same warning the American Civil Liberties Union has for schools everywhere.
A nationwide warning
While no other states have made such demands, the ACLU sent a letter to about 650 schools nationwide asking them to reject DeSantis' claim that the SJP is providing "material support to terrorism."
ACLU Florida interim director Howard Simon said the governor's charges against the student organization are not simply about banning speech or shutting down political groups on campuses; instead they imply the group is committing serious crimes.
"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."ACLU Florida interim director Howard Simon
"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 said the directives from the state for colleges to ban the SJP are a violation of students' First Amendment rights.
Students on some college campuses are becoming more divided as the conflict between Israel and Hamas grows. But so long as the speech does not lead to violence, Simon said it is legal under the First Amendment.
"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.
Attorneys general band together
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody joined 19 other state's attorneys general in a letter to the Biden administration last week encouraging them to consider the "prompt removal of foreign student visa holders who are found to have endorsed terror activity or provided material support to foreign terrorist organizations."
The letter includes similar language found in DeSantis' order to Florida public universities supporting the ban of SJP.
"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," Simon said.
"Nobody is protected when one side of a debate is silenced."
Rodrigues told the Board of Governors they're asking the USF and UF chapters to disavow violence, make clear that they're not part of Hamas, and pledge they will follow the law.
Brandeis University, a private university in Massachusetts, is the first institution to ban the student organization, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
WUSF reporters Kerry Sheridan and Mark Schreiner contributed to this report.
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