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USF pro-Palestinian student group files lawsuit against Florida

USF’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine participated in an on-campus protest in support of Palestine on Oct. 26, 2023. This is the second lawsuit to be filed against the state challenging Ray Rodrigues’ order to disband a pro-Palestinian group on university campuses in Florida.

USF’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter has filed a lawsuit against state and university officials alleging that an order that called for it to disband violated the group’s First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit was filed in response to a letter sent by State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues to university leaders in early October ordering them to terminate the pro-Palestinian student groups. In the Oct. 24 letter, Rodrigues alleged that the actions by the National Students for Justice in Palestine violated an antiterrorism state law. 

The order was halted at the Nov. 9 BOG meeting after state universities consulted with their SJP chapters. Rodrigues said the chapters showed administration they were not chartered under the “headship” of the national group. 

At the meeting, Rodrigues said the SJP chapters are working to write an “affirmation” which will confirm that the groups “reject violence, that they reject that they are part of the Hamas movement and that they will follow the law.”

Related: Florida halts order to disband pro-Palestinian student groups

The lawsuit, filed in a Gainesville federal court on Monday, asks a judge to declare the state’s order unconstitutional and block its enforcement.

Rodrigues, Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s Board of Governors (BOG), President Rhea Law and the USF Board of Trustees are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

USF SJP said the national group holds views that the local chapter does not agree with, according to the lawsuit. The USF group does not have a formal relationship with the national SJP.

In a statement to The Oracle, SJP said the group is dedicated to raising awareness about the “Palestinian cause” and “advocating for justice.” The group is facing challenges as DeSantis “aims to deactivate our group, falsely linking us to terrorism.”

“Yesterday, we took a stand by filing a lawsuit to protect our right to assemble and speak freely,” the statement read. “It’s important to clarify that our advocacy is focused on Palestinian justice, not antisemitism or supporting terrorism.”

SJP said they hope for a resolution that allows them to continue their mission in a “secure and inclusive environment.”

USF SJP has not been deactivated, according to a university spokesman. He said it is not university practice to comment on pending litigation., but confirmed USF is working with Rodrigues’ office to “review the matter.”

The chapter is represented by the Council of American-Islamic Relations Legal Defense (CAIR) and its state affiliate, Tampa-based Echid Law Firm and Mehri & Skalet, a Washington, D.C. law firm that specializes in discrimination.

In the letter ordering the group’s termination, Rodrigues wrote that National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) made statements classified as “harmful support for terrorist groups” and released a toolkit promoting Hamas – a designated terrorist group by the U.S.

The toolkit stated that “We as Palestinian students in exile are part of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.” 

University administrators had informed USF SJP that a decision would be made regarding the group’s potential deactivation by Oct. 31, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit claims the deadline “came and went without any substantive update.”

The lawsuit alleges that Dean of Students Danielle McDonald met with USF SJP shortly after Oct. 31. McDonald “inquired” if the group would consider changing their name to “appease complaints by parents, alumni, and other community members,” according to the lawsuit. 

The group declined to change the organization’s name, according to the lawsuit. Members have not received a final update on the group’s status.

“The uncertainty surrounding defendants’ plans for USF SJP leaves the organization and its student members in limbo,” the lawsuit reads. 

A similar federal lawsuit was filed by the University of Florida SJP chapter on Nov. 16 which also challenges the state’s order to disband on the basis of the First Amendment. 

Roza Tawil, an attorney with Erchid Law, said DeSantis’ actions threaten the “rights enshrined” by the First Amendment. 

“This is a despicable attempt on behalf of politicians to silence opinions they disagree with and to foster a homogeneous people by eliminating the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that the Supreme Court has ruled the school environment must be,” she said in a press release.  

Omar Saleh, CAIR-Florida lead attorney, said the pro-Palestinian student groups that express criticism of the Israeli government are not antisemitic or “terror supporters.”

“We don’t believe the government can legally ban USF’s SJP for criticisms that it merely dislikes,” he said in a press release.   

The pro-Palestinian student groups have also been targeted through legislation. 

Two similar bills were filed in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives which would make students supporting terrorist organizations ineligible for scholarships, financial aid, state grants and tuition assistance. 

Related: Newly proposed Florida bills target pro-Palestinian groups promoting ‘terrorist organizations’

Under the bills, universities would be required to report “certain student information” to the Department of Homeland Security.

The bills – Senate Bill 470 and House Bill 465 – specifically name Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad as examples of terrorist organizations. Neither of the proposals include a definition of “promote.”

The local USF chapter of SJP said the recent accusations have been harmful to Arab and Muslim Americans across the country.

“This situation has made Florida a center for hate against those advocating for Palestinians, leaving us feeling unsafe and unsupported by our faculty,” the group said.

This story has been updated.