Florida officials are reassessing their plan to bar a pro-Palestinian student group from state university campuses.
Ray Rodrigues, who heads the State University System, said Thursday that campus groups thought to be chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine are actually “not chartered or under the headship” of the national organization.
Rodrigues, working with Gov. Ron DeSantis, had targeted student groups at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida, saying in a recent letter that their affiliation with the national group aligned them with the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.
But both universities, according to Rodrigues, have since obtained legal opinions raising concerns about “potential personal liability for university actors” who were tasked with disbanding the UF and USF groups.
With the original plan on hold, Rodrigues said he is seeking outside legal advice and working with the universities to elicit statements from the student groups. He said the statements would affirm that the groups “reject violence,” “reject that they are part of the Hamas movement,” and pledge “that they will follow the law.”
His comments came as he addressed the university system Board of Governors, which is meeting in Orlando this week.
“Our campuses have avoided the violence and the antisemitism that is occurring on campuses all across this nation,” Rodrigues told the board. “In Florida, we will not tolerate violent activity, antisemitic activity or failure to observe the law.”
Leaders for the student groups at UF and USF did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression had denounced the original plan, citing concerns over free speech. Rodrigues announced that plan on Oct. 24, saying that a “toolkit” released by Students for Justice in Palestine described the Hamas attack on Israel as “the resistance” and “unequivocally states: ‘Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.’” He said that violated a Florida law against giving “material support” to terrorism.
DeSantis touted having disbanded the groups during the Republican presidential primary debate Wednesday night in Miami. Two of his rivals put forth similar stances, while one pushed back.
U.S. Senator Tim Scott reminded university presidents that “federal funding is a privilege, not a right,” and said any campus that “allows students to encourage terrorism, mass murder and genocide” should lose funding.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said university leaders should treat the groups as they would the Ku Klux Klan.
However, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said disbanding the groups would amount to censorship.
“When they are siding with Hamas over Israel, they are fools,” Ramaswamy said. “But I also want to caution here if we go in the direction of ... telling student groups to disband, mark my words: Soon they say if you question a vaccine and its side effects, you are a bio-terrorist. Soon they will say that if you show up at a school board meeting you’re a domestic terrorist. ... We don’t quash this with censorship.”
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Rodrigues said he will provide an update to the Board of Governors at a later date.
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.