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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Deactivation order didn’t limit UF pro-Palestine group’s free speech, judge rules

The decision was based on the fact UF never actually deactivated the group

<p>Around 60 protestors gather on the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street in support of Palestine on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. </p>

Around 60 protestors gather on the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street in support of Palestine on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023.

The UF Students for Justice in Palestine chapter failed to prove the state’s deactivation order limited its free speech in a court decision released Wednesday afternoon. 

Because UF never followed through on the order to deactivate the group, SJP’s rights were never actually limited, wrote U.S. District Judge Mark Walker.

The student chapter filed a lawsuit against state officials after State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues sent a memo to all state university presidents Oct. 24 asking them to deactivate SJP chapters. The lawsuit called for the judge to order a preliminary injunction against Rodrigues’ order. 

In the memo, the chancellor condemned the Oct. 7 attacks Hamas launched on Israel that led to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. He then claimed the national SJP branch violated Florida’s law against supporting foreign terrorism by releasing a “toolkit” that refers to Operation Al-Aqsa Flood as “the resistance.”

However, state universities’ SJP chapters are not under control of the national branch, wrote Walker. After consulting legal experts, UF decided it risked liability issues if it followed the order and never deactivated the organization, he wrote.

SJP filed suit not over its deactivation — which, “without dispute,” never happened — but because it claimed the threat of deactivation violated the First Amendment, Walker wrote. The group filed a preliminary injunction against the order Nov. 16 with representation from the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida and Palestine Legal.

The injunction was heard in Florida’s Northern District Court in Tallahassee Friday morning, but Walker waited five days to release his decision.

UF SJP failed to prove university authorities acted on the chancellor’s threats — for example, by increasing law enforcement at their meetings or questioning the group about their organization’s activities, Walker wrote.

Instead, UF SJP’s testimony mainly focused on the fear, disheartenment and disappointment its members felt following the chancellor’s memorandum.

“This Court does not fault Plaintiff's members for feeling anxious about the fact that the Governor — arguably the most powerful man in Florida — has repeatedly disparaged Plaintiff's members as ‘terrorists,’” the decision stated.

UF SJP members said they were still determined to stand up for their beliefs and didn’t indicate signs of self-censorship, Walker wrote.

Because the deactivation was merely a threat and UF never followed through with action, UF SJP’s threat of injury was speculation, he wrote.

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The ACLU hopes the case notified Florida officials that any attempt to enforce the deactivation order will be met with more court action, said Brian Hauss, an ACLU senior staff attorney who represented the student group, in a press release. The release did not indicate any further legal actions are currently underway.

Contact Zoey Thomas at Follow her on X @zoeythomas39.

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Zoey Thomas

Zoey Thomas is a second-year media production major and the university administration reporter for The Alligator. She previously wrote for the metro desk. Other than reporter, Zoey's titles include espresso connoisseur, long-distance runner and Wes Anderson appreciator. 

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