Legal experts say DeSantis’ efforts to shut down pro-Palestinian university groups are likely illegal
Legal experts expressed skepticism over a move by the DeSantis administration to shut down pro-Palestinian student organizations on college campuses in Florida by employing a state law intended to punish groups that provide material support to terrorists.
The experts cited a 2010 Supreme Court case that ruled the federal version of the terrorism law doesn't prohibit independent advocacy or expression even about groups designated as terrorism organizations, but narrowly limited specific conduct toward such groups that include expert advice or assistance.
They described efforts by the governor and the State University System to deactivate chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine on at least two campuses – including the University of Florida – as an aggressive and likely unconstitutional application of the terrorism law because it would limit students' rights to protected speech.
"Such rights are critical to a functioning democracy, no matter how distasteful the person’s politics or speech may be," said Fritz Scheller, an Orlando lawyer who represented a former UF student sentenced last week under the federal terrorism law to three years in prison for flying to the Middle East to join the terrorist group ISIS. "At its core, political advocacy and free speech encourage and depend on the free exchange of ideas."
In Scheller's case, Mohammad Suliman twice tried in 2006 and 2009 to join al-Shabaab, another terrorist group, and in 2014 flew to Turkey to sneak across the Syrian border to join ISIS. The Justice Department charged him under the law that prohibits offering material support – including Suliman himself – to any terror group. Suliman wasn't accused merely of expressing support for those groups' fight against Western countries.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has called Florida "the freest state in these United States," has made unqualified support for Israel since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas part of his campaign platform for the Republican presidential nomination. The surprise attacks killed roughly 1,400 Israelis, and the subsequent fighting in and near Gaza has killed more than 5,000 Palestinians.
Another lawyer, Vincent Citro of Orlando, also cited the Supreme Court case as problematic for efforts by the governor to shut down the student chapters. Citro, who has represented defendants charged in the U.S. Capitol insurrection in 2021, formerly was a federal prosecutor with the Justice Department.
Citro said the student groups could ask a federal judge to block the governor's efforts as violating their First Amendment rights.
In a directive from Tallahassee earlier this week, the government ordered the universities to deactivate the chapters and said the national organization described the Hamas attacks as "a surprise operation against the Zionist enemy" and said its members were "PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement."
Democrats objected. Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the order was unconstitutional. “Politicians cannot and should not dictate what speech is allowed or not allowed on college campuses,” Eskamani, who is Iranian American, said in a statement.
The status of the chapter at the state's flagship university – which has more Jewish students than any other university in the United States – was unclear. It was still listed as operational Friday on the school's directory of student organizations, and its faculty adviser, English professor Malini Johar Schueller, said earlier this week she had received no guidance from UF about the chapter's future. The chapter president resigned Thursday.
In a statement earlier this week, the chapter called the demands to shut down the group "disgraceful." "Governor DeSantis continues to disrespect American values such as freedom of speech to extend his political power," it read.
The university administration has declined to respond to phone calls and emails about the issue since Wednesday.
No organization by Friday had filed any legal challenge against the DeSantis administration's orders in federal courts in Florida.
Another expert, law professor Wadie Said of the University of Colorado, said if any government agency genuinely believed the student chapters were providing material support to Hamas, they would be aggressively investigating the groups.
"There would be intensive investigations," said Said, a former federal public defender and son of the prominent Palestinian-American academic Edward Said. He also cited the Supreme Court case as protecting the students' rights to protest the violence of Israel's response in Gaza and generations of suffering by Palestinians across the region.
"Given that they're students at a public university, First Amendment rights shouldn’t be infringed," Said said.
Meanwhile, a national free-speech group urged Florida universities to refuse to comply with the state's directive to close the student chapters. The director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a group based in Philadelphia, said the government's efforts were illegal.
Earlier this month, an influential state lawmaker, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said any Florida college or university student organization that has attempted to “justify the killing of Jews” must be expelled immediately, and should lose their funding. Fine, who is Jewish, also called for students participating in rallies expressing such beliefs to be expelled, and any faculty member who has “propagated, excused, or encouraged this genocide” to be fired.
The state memo comes after a statement earlier this month by the University of Florida’s new president, former Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who said it was “beneath people called to educate our next generation of Americans” to offer anything other than unqualified support for Israel. In the same statement, Sasse promised to defend free speech on campus.
“We will protect our students and we will protect speech,” he said. “This is always true: Our Constitution protects the rights of people to make abject idiots of themselves.”
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