By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) -The American Civil Liberties Union challenged Florida’s ban on pro-Palestinian university groups, arguing in a federal lawsuit on Thursday that the state is violating students’ free speech as tensions roil U.S. campuses over Israel’s war with Hamas.
Florida’s university system, joined by Governor Ron DeSantis, last month ordered colleges to shut down chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group at the center of U.S. campus activism since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
The lawsuit – against DeSantis, a 2024 Republican presidential hopeful, and several state university system officials – was filed on behalf of the University of Florida’s SJP chapter and seeks a preliminary injunction to a state order blocking SJP from receiving school funds and using campus facilities.
“If Florida officials think silencing pro-Palestinian students protects the Jewish community – or anyone, they’re wrong. This attack on free speech is dangerous,” Howard Simon, interim executive director of ACLU of Florida, said in a statement.
A spokesperson for DeSantis said the governor was right to disband the groups.
“Groups that claim to be part of a foreign terrorist movement have no place on our university campuses,” governor spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said.
State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues did not respond to a request for comment.
Students at U.S. universities have clashed over issues emerging on both sides of the nearly six-week-old conflict. Some accuse their schools of not doing enough to denounce antisemitism and others that the schools ignore the plight of Gazans under Israeli fire.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Florida by the ACLU, ACLU of Florida and Palestine Legal, cites a Supreme Court decision affirming students’ right to associate and speak out on matters of public concern, and another case establishing that federal law does not criminalize “independent political advocacy” as long as it is not 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 chapters violated school policies.
The student groups call the suspensions and bans unjust. Videos posted to Instagram have shown Palestinian supporters rallying at Columbia and George Washington on Wednesday in protest over the SJP groups’ suspensions.
Florida’s university system has said it based its ban on a “toolkit” issued by the national organization to chapters that referred to Hamas’ attack as “the resistance” and stated “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement.”
In his Oct. 24 memo ordering the ban, Chancellor Rodrigues said the national SJP identified itself as part of Hamas’ attack and that it was a felony under Florida law “to provide material support… to a designated foreign terrorist organization.”
Brian Hauss, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology project and counsel in the case, said the student plaintiffs in the state university system were victims of “guilt by association” in this case.
“They are a completely autonomous and independent group that is in no way beholden to the national Students for Justice in Palestine,” Hauss said in an interview, adding that he did not believe the national organization could be found criminally liable for its statements about Hamas.
Israel says Hamas killed 1,200 people in the Oct. 7 assault and took about 240 hostages to Gaza. Gaza health authorities say more than 11,000 people have been confirmed killed in Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Howard Goller and Deepa Babington)