On October 24, 2023, Ray Rodrigues, the Chancellor of Florida’s State University System (SUS), sent a memorandum to state university presidents ordering the disbandment of student groups affiliated with National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
The memorandum was sent against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of early December, has reportedly killed more than 15,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions around speech on campuses in the United States and other countries.
In the memo, Rodrigues spotlighted SJP’s ‘Day of Resistance Toolkit’, which was prepared by the group following their call for a National Day of Resistance on October 12, 2023. The Toolkit was framed as a response to a “call for collective action by the Palestinian masses” made by the “Palestinian resistance.” It noted, “Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance” and stated “we have an unshakable responsibility to join the call for mass mobilization.”The toolkit lists messaging and framing recommendations for external communications, including a talking point stating “we as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”
Rodrigues stated that by incorporating this messaging in the toolkit, “National SJP has affirmatively identified it is part of the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood [October 7 attack] – a terrorist led attack,” and further noted that supporting a terrorist organization is a felony under Florida state law. The statute Rodrigues was referencing, mirrored by federal law, prohibits providing “material support or resources” – including money, property, services, lodging and other items – to designated terrorist organizations.
SJP campus affiliates exist on at least two state university campuses, the University of Florida (UF) and the University of South Florida (USF). The Florida SJP chapters have not endorsed the language in the Toolkit. The memorandum sent by Rodrigues does not reference specific actions taken by either of these chapters that purportedly violate either Florida or US law. Rodrigues nevertheless directed SUS presidents to deactivate SJP groups at their universities, noting that he had consulted with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis regarding the order.
In a statement, the University of Florida’s SJP affiliated chapter, denounced the disbandment order and criticized Governor DeSantis for failing to respect political freedom and freedom of speech. UF and USF reportedly obtained independent legal opinions and raised liability concerns regarding university staff who would disband the chapters.
On November 9, 2023, Rodrigues confirmed that the deactivation had not taken place, because the organizational constitutions of both the UF and USF “clearly state their organization is not subservient or under the national Students for Justice in Palestine.“ However, he added that the state is requesting that both SJP chapters affirm their rejection of violence and renounce Hamas.The deactivation order has not been rescinded.
On November 16, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Palestine Legal filed a federal lawsuit challenging Rodrigues’ order to the SUS, stating it violates the SJP’s First Amendment rights to free speech and association.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about a higher education official, in consultation with a state government official, intervening in the higher education sector in an attempt to suspend student groups, apparently to restrict or punish nonviolent student expression. University and government authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with expressive activities, so long as they are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. University and state actions limiting the rights to free expression or association on campus have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.