Florida Officials’ Order to Halt Pro-Palestine Rights Student Chapter Prompts Lawsuit Asking Federal Court to Block Such Attempts

Via Wikimedia Commons This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

By Estrella Torres and Vy Tran

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — University of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues and Gov. Ron DeSantis have recently sought to shut down the UF Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), but the ACLU, ACLU of Florida and Palestine Legal filed a lawsuit, contending these attempts clearly violate constitutional rights to free speech and association.

This comes amid ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, where censorship of students has been immensely increasing because of their voiced opposition to Israeli and U.S policies, as reported by the ACLU.

The U.S District Court for the Northern District of Florida is being asked to block such endeavors Florida officials are pursuing against student groups.

The ACLU outlines SJP’S stances on the debate, asserting the group is “organizing for the end to all the violence in Gaza as urgent and continuing, and this looming deactivation threat has left (the group) terrified and disheartened.”

According to the ACLU, Florida’s effort to deactivate SJP not only violates constitutional freedoms but imposes restrictions on speech solely based on the opinions of government officials.  

College campuses have long served as a beneficial landscape for students to share ideas regarding urgent and unjust social and political issues, a vital right that the Supreme Court seriously acknowledges, the ACLU writes.

According to the ACLU’s report, Brian Haus, a senior staff attorney working with the ACLU, states SJP’s commitment to “challenge state officials’ attempt to restrict their speech sends the strong message that censorship is not only unconstitutional, but that it has no place in our schools.” 

Florida officials must protect free speech on campus and, at the same time, ensure that all students can pursue their education free from targeted harassment and discrimination. Silencing pro-Palestinian voices neither protects students nor keeps college campuses safe,” said Howard Simon, an executive director at the ACLU. 

In an article by Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU National Security Project, “The Supreme Court’s actions have rang loud and clear about how serious they are about this amendment,” Shamsi writes. 

“In a 1972 case, Healy v. James, for example, the Court affirmed that the First Amendment protects the right of student groups to associate and to speak out on matters of public concern, free from censorship by public university officials,” Shamsi added.

But, the ACLU added, the students in UF SJP have more pressing issues to prioritize even if their own rights are compromised by authorities, noting the need for advocacy on Palestinian human rights remains strong, but now that their right to assemble and practice of free speech has been compromised by the suspension of funds, this pursuit of advocacy may end up being a pipe dream and no longer a plausibility for positive change.

This empowerment has been perceived as “material support for terrorism” by Florida’s officials, which begs the question of whether this will end up stigmatizing activism regarding the current events of the Palestine-Israel conflict and the community as a whole.

“In times of heightened political tension and global crisis, it is crucial for university leaders to safeguard free speech, open debate, and peaceful dissent on campus,” Shamsi said, adding, “We hope that the court will see Florida officials’ deactivation order for what it is: A blatant and harmful effort to censor pro-Palestinian speech on campus, in violation of the Constitution.”

With other campuses across the country following a surge of punishing and silencing pro-Palestinian sentiments in response to the Palestinian/Israeli conflicts, many express concern and outrage, said Shamsi.

Shamsi added Rutgers University (New Jersey), Indiana University and the University of Michigan have all retaliated similarly to separate presences of a Political Science and Middle Eastern professor, student elections, campus protests and other SJUs that ultimately raised questions and opposition alike.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized students’ right to free speech, “including in times of crisis,” Shamsi reaffirms.

About The Author

Estrella Torres is a first-generation Latina student in her 3rd year at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is pursuing a major in Political Science and a minor in Public Affairs. Estrella has a strong passion and dedication to addressing social justice issues and political activism both in her high school and university. Her positionality as a student coming from a Mexican immigrant household has fueled her to pursue career goals involved with social justice and immigration law. She hopes to help undocumented immigrants as a lawyer and promote policies that would better their lives and provide them with fair and equal opportunities. Because of this, she is planning to go on the pre-law track and foster her skills of reading, writing, analyzing, and critical thinking. She hoped to gain more experience in journalism as regards law, local government, and public policy that would further prepare her for her goals.

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