A UF pro-Palestinian student group could see a future victory in a courtroom against top Florida education officials after it cited First Amendment rights against a statewide order calling for the deactivation of its group.
The UF Students for Justice in Palestine filed a lawsuit Nov. 16 against Gov. Ron DeSantis, UF President Ben Sasse, the Florida Board of Governors and the UF Board of Trustees for their efforts to ban the group from campus — and some legal experts believe the lawsuit could result in a win for the student group.
Gary Edinger, a Gainesville lawyer who threatened to sue UF in 2017 if it barred far-right white nationalist Richard Spencer from speaking on campus, said plaintiffs have a “brilliant lawsuit.”
Immediate government action against public speech is “super rare,” he said. “And the reason it’s super rare is because it's super unconstitutional.”
UF SJP filed the lawsuit with support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and another civil rights group Palestine Legal. The lawsuit seeks to block the order and declare it as unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The lawsuit targets State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues’ Oct. 24 memo ordering universities to disband chapters of National Students for Justice in Palestine, claiming the organization supported “Hamas terrorism.”
Rodrigues walked back the order at the Board of Governors meeting Nov. 9, citing legal concerns that university actors could be held personally liable for shutting down the groups.
He added the administration is now working with universities to obtain “an express affirmation from their campus chapters affirming a rejection of violence, renunciation of Hamas, and commitment to upholding the law.”
Hina Shamsi, director of ACLU’s National Security Project, wrote in an email Nov. 18 that Rodrigues’ new order still violates the First Amendment.
“The ultimatum would in addition force the student group to proclaim its innocence of things it has not done or said, which is compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment,” Shamsi wrote. “And one of the lessons of the McCarthy era is that government leaders go down a dangerous and divisive path when they make demands like this.”
UF law professor Jane Bambauer said “the state is overreacting” by issuing a deactivation order.
“They are trying to penalize this student organization for making a political message that is disfavored by the state, and that is not allowed under free speech,” Bambauer said.
Former UF law faculty member Clay Calvert said the order will likely be blocked.
Courts tend to protect free speech when First Amendment rights are threatened, Calvert said.
Representatives of DeSantis and the Board of Governors did not respond to The Alligator’s emails asking for comment.
UF spokesperson Steve Orlando confirmed in an email Nov. 17 that the university has not deactivated any groups since the order was issued.
“The University of Florida has been clear and upfront about our two foundational and legal commitments: We will protect our students and we will protect speech,” Orlando wrote. “Any student groups that break the law will be decertified. All UF student organizations that were in place before the Board of Governors’ memo are still in place now.”
Contact Garrett Shanley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @garrettshanley.
Garrett Shanley is a third-year journalism and history major and The Alligator's Fall 2023 university administration reporter. In his free time, Garrett can be found watching Wong Kar-Wai movies and brooding.