Florida University System says it has not deactivated Students for Justice in Palestine chapters

Two Florida chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine remain active, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis asserting during Wednesday night’s GOP presidential primary debate that he had deactivated them.

According to State University of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, both SJP chapters said they are not chartered by the national organization that faces scrutiny from the DeSantis administration.

During the debate, DeSantis acknowledged the controversy surrounding the student organizations, but claimed the groups had been disbanded.

“We had a group of students for Justice of Palestine,” he said. “They said they are common cause with Hamas. They said, ‘We’re not just in solidarity. This is what we are.’ We deactivated them. We’re not gonna use tax dollars to fund Jihad.”

According to an October 24 letter to presidents in the state’s university system, Rodrigues ordered all SJP chapters in Florida to shut down because they violated state’s anti-terrorism statute. The directive, he wrote, was issued “in consultation with Governor DeSantis.”

But during Thursday’s State University System Board of Governors meeting, Rodrigues acknowledged that has not happened.

“The constitutions of both organizations, which were submitted by them at the beginning of the school year when they were registered as an active student-registered organization, clearly state their organization is not subservient or under the national Students for Justice in Palestine,” he said. “Therefore, the universities have not deactivated their university chapters of SJP.”

Rodrigues said that both universities have obtained legal opinions about dissolving these student chapters.

“We have reviewed those opinions, and in short, they raise concerns about potential personal liability for university actors who deactivate the student-registered organization,” he said.

The board is seeking its own outside legal counsel on this matter, Rodrigues said. It is also seeking affirmation from both local chapters that they reject violence, that they renounce that they are part of Hamas, and that they follow the law.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said Thursday that it was “reprehensible to see some university administrators, after the fact, creating bureaucratic roadblocks.”

“We trust that the [Board of Governors’] steps today are part of an effort to see this directive through,” spokesman Jeremy Redfern said in a statement. “We expect our Jewish students will be free from threats on our campuses.”

DeSantis’ push to defund the two chapters last month immediately drew condemnation from free speech groups.

“This directive is a dangerous — and unconstitutional — threat to free speech. If it goes unchallenged, no one’s political beliefs will be safe from government suppression,” the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said in a statement at the time.

The organization once praised DeSantis for urging campuses to allow more room for diverse viewpoints. DeSantis, as a new governor in 2019, called on public universities and colleges to sign onto the Chicago Statement, a free speech policy adopted by the University of Chicago. The statement declared “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

The call for Florida schools to take such a bold step did not come in a vacuum. In 2017, the University of Florida was thrust into a national debate over protected speech when White nationalist Richard Spencer appeared on the campus two months after participating in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In encouraging schools to adopt the Chicago Statement, DeSantis addressed the controversial visit and said “the best response” by students would have been to ignore Spencer, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

“At an academic institution where you have a speaker expressing ideas, there’s no room for a heckler’s veto where you simply shout down or scream down a speaker so that they cannot articulate views,” DeSantis said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

DeSantis, though, has also faced accusations from a former supporter, state Rep. Randy Fine, that he didn’t move soon enough to stifle pro-Palestinian groups on college campuses. Fine, the only Jewish Republican in the state legislature, said he was motivated to switch his allegiance to former President Donald Trump in part because DeSantis was slow to address antisemitism on college campuses.

“It’s a disgrace,” Fine wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “@RonDeSantis rushed out a press release after I pulled my endorsement saying he would go after these student groups. More words; no action.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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