USF pro-Palestine student group sues Florida leaders over free speech

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A pro-Palestinian student group has filed a second federal lawsuit against state and university officials, this time alleging that its University of South Florida chapter was denied its First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit was filed Monday by the USF chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which last month was ordered to disband along with a similar group at the University of Florida. The suit targets DeSantis, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, USF President Rhea Law, the state Board of Governors and the USF board of trustees.

The USF chapter is represented by the Council of American-Islamic Relations Legal Defense, its affiliate CAIR Florida, the Tampa-based Erchid Law Firm and Mehri & Skalet, a Washington, D.C., law firm specializing in discrimination.

The UF chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine filed a similar lawsuit last week.

Representatives for USF and the Board of Governors said their organizations do not discuss pending litigation. “We continue to work with the State University System Chancellor’s Office to review the matter,” said USF spokesperson Kevin Watler. “The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at USF has not been deactivated.”

DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

The latest suit claims the USF student group’s free speech rights were violated and that its members never provided support for terrorism, as Rodrigues claimed in an Oct. 24 letter. The letter quoted a “toolkit” for organizing demonstrations distributed by the Students for Justice in Palestine national group. The toolkit referred to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks as “resistance” and said that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”

Rodrigues pointed to that wording, alleging that the national group and its chapters have provided “material support” to terrorists in violation of Florida law. DeSantis has taken credit for the order to disband the groups, mentioning it in presidential campaign appearances.

The lawsuit said USF’s chapter, like UF’s, is not affiliated with the national organization, nor was it consulted in developing the toolkit.

“Governors cannot shut down lawful and peaceful student groups because of the views they express,” the lawsuit says. “The First Amendment forbids it.”

The lawsuit also said that USF’s dean for students met with the group and asked them to consider changing their name “in order to appease complaints by parents, alumni, and other community members.” The group declined and its members have not heard a final decision on the fate of their organization, according to the lawsuit.

“However, the impact is clear,” the lawsuit said. “The very name ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ has become associated with criminal activity as a result of Defendants actions.”

Roza Tawil, an attorney with Erchid Law Firm, said, “Chilling speech is the same thing as preventing speech.”

“They cannot choose a viewpoint on which to censor,” she said at a news conference Tuesday. “That is absolutely against the Constitution.”

Abdullah Jaber, executive director of CAIR Florida, said students on college campuses have historically been “the spark of change” but regularly faced resistance. He pointed to the “George Wallaces” of the world during the civil rights movements, Kent State University’s response to Vietnam War protesters, the vilification and questioned patriotism of those who spoke against wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who participated in Black Lives Matter protests.

“The struggle for justice is not linear,” Jaber said. “Students again and again face elected officials who are supposedly the heroes and caretakers of the ideals of our nation.”

Jaber said state leaders have painted an inaccurate portrait of student protesters as being anti-Jewish. He compared it to criticizing Saudi Arabia for its war crimes, which he said would not make him anti-Muslim. “Criticism of a foreign nation is as American as it gets,” he said.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has compared pro-Palestinian campus activity to “jihad,” and a state bill was filed that would make students supporting terrorist organizations ineligible for many forms of financial aid. The bill was filed in response to recent protests.

Omar Saleh, managing attorney for CAIR Florida, said the impact could be dire for Muslim students, even though the student group’s membership is diverse.

“It’s a huge mistake by labeling groups like these terrorist sympathizers,” he said. “It makes them a target across the nation, as people who are viewed as terrorists. These are United States citizens who were born here as proud Muslim Floridians. Now, because they’re in a group called Students for Justice in Palestine, they are being labeled terrorists. We already know what’s coming next, and it has to be stopped head on.”

The group is seeking an injunction against the state order to disband. In the meantime, students have continued to partner with other organizations on the USF campus to host events supporting Palestine but have not sponsored their own events.

“We have to be real and we have to cut the nonsense,” Saleh said. “This is not a Muslim thing. It’s a constitutional thing.”

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.