Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has ordered the state university system to disband chapters of a pro-Palestinian student group, accusing it of supporting terrorism and violating state law. The move has sparked criticism from the group and civil rights advocates, who say it is an attack on free speech and academic freedom.
The group in question is Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which advocates for Palestinian rights and opposes Israeli occupation and settlements. The group has chapters at several universities across the country, including two in Florida: the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and Florida State University in Tallahassee.
According to a memo sent by Ray Rodrigues, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida, to university leaders on Tuesday, the SJP chapters must be “deactivated” based on their affiliation with the National SJP, which expressed support for Hamas after the Palestinian armed group launched attacks on Israel on October 7. The attacks killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 30 US citizens, and took more than 200 hostages. Israel responded with airstrikes and ground invasion of Gaza, killing more than 6,500 Palestinians, mostly civilians.
Rodrigues cited a “toolkit” released by the National SJP, which referred to the Hamas attacks as “the resistance” and stated that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.” He said that this constituted providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, which is a felony under Florida law. He also said that he consulted with Governor DeSantis, who agreed with his decision.
DeSantis is a staunch supporter of Israel and a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2024. He has previously stated that all Palestinians are anti-Semitic and Palestinian refugees should not be allowed into the US. He has also signed legislation that prohibits state agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel and that requires public schools to teach students about the Holocaust.
The SJP chapters in Florida denounced the move and said that DeSantis was abusing his power and violating their constitutional rights. They said that they were not affiliated with Hamas or any other terrorist group, and that they were exercising their right to free speech and peaceful protest. They also said that they were not responsible for the statements or actions of the National SJP, which is an independent entity.
The SJP chapters also received support from civil rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) of Florida. They said that the state’s action was discriminatory, unconstitutional, and chilling to academic freedom. They urged the state university system to reverse its decision and respect the rights of students to express their views on campus.
The controversy over the SJP chapters comes amid rising tensions and violence in the Middle East, as well as increasing reports of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the US. Both Jewish and Muslim communities have expressed concern over their safety and security, as well as their ability to voice their opinions without fear of harassment or retaliation.