SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: January 26, 2024

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Florida State University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 26, 2024, Florida State University (FSU) suspended its campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)–a student-led activist group with chapters on college campuses across the US–after its members disrupted a board meeting in November by chanting pro-Palestine slogans. The group is suspended until May 15, 2025.

On November 10, 2023, SDS planned to voice support for Palestine during the public comments section at a university board of trustees meeting. However, when the group showed up to the meeting, they were told the time for public comments had passed. Frustrated, the SDS members entered the room where the board meeting was taking place and began chanting pro-Palestine slogans. Videos posted on social media show the students protesting loudly but peacefully, waving the Palestinian flag and shouting, “Free Palestine” and “Palestine will be free.”

Videos posted to social media showed the students immediately leaving after being asked by police to exit the meeting. However, one student, who was unaffiliated with SDS, resisted leaving. The university determined that, despite the fact that the student was not an SDS member, “ the organization holds responsibility for [their] actions since the organization event to speak at the FSU Board of Trustees meeting was planned and endorsed by the organization. Thus, a reasonable observer would associate the aforementioned behaviors of the individual refusing to depart with the organization.”

On January 26, following a hearing on January 12, FSU suspended SDS, stating the group had violated three code of conduct policies: not complying with the “lawful order or reasonable request” of a law enforcement officer to just “stay and watch” the meeting; disrupting university operations; and “entering or using the property or facilities of another person or entity without the consent or authorization or refusing to depart when directed by a university official.” The group’s suspension will last until May 15, 2025, until which time, SDS is barred from university activities and from using images or references that “may imply a recognized relationship” with the university.

The suspension decision occurred nearly four and a half months after 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 March 2024, has reportedly killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of a student group in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression. University authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with expressive activity on campus, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Where alleged violations of university policy do occur, authorities have an obligation to ensure due process, transparency, fairness, and proportionality when engaging in disciplinary action, and should avoid punishments that effectively restrict future expressive activity. University 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.