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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

DeSantis tramples on free speech rights of Florida students who support Palestinians

Florida is likely to lose the fight over its deactivation order against Students for Justice in Palestine because it is attempting to deactivate the exercise of free speech.

Jonathan Turley
Opinion contributor

The issuance of a deactivation order last month in Florida sounded like it involved a routine decision by the utility to cut off service because of an overdue bill. In reality, it involved the deactivation of the free speech rights of a controversial group, and the bill may prove prohibitively expensive for many citizens.

The order in question was issued by Raymond Rodrigues, the chancellor of Florida's university system, to the University of Florida chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. The SJP has been under fire for its statements in support of Palestinians after Hamas' Oct. 7 massacre in Israel.

I have previously written that Hamas is factually, legally and morally a terrorist organization. However, the banning of the student group in Florida represents a clear denial of free speech rights under the First Amendment.

Rodrigues has indicated that he made the decision "in consultation with (Gov. Ron) DeSantis" due to the SJP national body voicing support for the Palestinian "resistance" and rationalizing the Oct. 7 attack as the result of Israel's "apartheid, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate bombing" and other "provocations."

That advocacy is being used to suggest that the group is guilty of a felony under Florida law to knowingly provide material aid or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

Political advocacy for Palestinians isn't a crime

However, no such charge has been filed. Indeed, no charge could be sustained on this basis. Political advocacy is not a crime in this country and cannot alone constitute material support.

The SJP's anti-Israel language and its support for Palestinians fall squarely with protected speech under the First Amendment. The emphasis remains on the word "material," not political support under these laws, and has not yet been shown in Florida.

Under cases like Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Supreme Court has emphasized that criminal material support of terrorist groups cannot criminalize simple advocacy. Rather, it requires “advocacy performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization.”

The court also has stressed in other cases that the First Amendment protects the right of students to associate and advocate on campuses on issues of public concern.

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Our universities must remain places where students feel safe to voice their viewpoints, and threatening or violent acts, including tearing down flyers about Hamas' hostages, cannot be tolerated. However, campuses also must remain places where diverse viewpoints can be expressed. Free speech remains a critical guarantee for higher education.

Other schools such as Brandeis University have banned SJP and my own university, George Washington, issued a temporary suspension. Those, however, are private universities. They can face lawsuits over violating their own free speech principles, but Florida is a state actor barred directly under the First Amendment from such content discrimination.

Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine and for free speech at Columbia University campus on November 14, 2023 in New York City.

Conversely, we have seen students and professors accused of inflammatory rhetoric against Hamas subjected to suspension or forced to teach remotely.

It is a cycle that has repeated itself with cyclic regularity throughout our history. In my new book, "The Indispensable Right: Free Speech in an Age of Rage," I explore periods of "panic politics" and how inevitably the first victim is free speech. The same pattern appears to be happening now in Florida.

Silencing opposing views is never an effective way of combating ideology. A Quinnipiac University poll found that, among Democratic voters, 41% said their sympathies lie with the Palestinians, while 34% said they were more sympathetic to the Israelis. Overall, the percentage of Americans who support Palestinians rather than Israelis is smaller but growing.

Responding to these citizens with censorship will only further fuel the rage while undermining free speech for all Americans.

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Universities should champion free speech

There is an alternative. Universities can enforce policies barring threats and violence while allowing good speech to counter bad speech.

We have seen the alternative. It is to succumb to the monster of sedition and speech crimes. In every prior period, the fear and anger were genuine and often understandable. However, they resulted in the abuse of minority groups and dissenting views in society, from communists to feminists to civil rights advocates.

We have seen censorship and cancel campaigns also directed at Jewish groups, including the disgraceful destruction of Hamas hostage flyers by lawyers and professors. We have also seen school publications push back on pro-Israeli writers. And we have seen rising antisemitism, physical abuse and violent rhetoric directed against Jewish students. None of that can be tolerated on our campuses.

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Florida is likely to lose the fight over its deactivation order because it is attempting to deactivate the exercise of free speech. That is the very right that defines us as a nation.

It is also a right that has been in a free-fall on college campuses in this era of cancel campaigns. Conservatives have rightfully denounced such campaigns, which largely target conservative, libertarian and contrarian speakers. Indeed, universities have been complicit in rising orthodoxy and intolerance on our campuses, including the dramatic reduction of conservative and libertarian faculty.

DeSantis should reconsider the implications of this action. The First Amendment was not created to protect only popular speech. It was a truly revolutionary statement that we would protect all views, including those we may find wrong and offensive. It is a protection of the least popular among us. It is a covenant among citizens that we will fight for one another's right to speak regardless of our disagreement with the underlying views.

Whatever the cost that SJP's speech may have for schools, it pales in comparison with the cost of censorship. That is a bill that must be paid by every citizen when we try to silence the few for the satisfaction of the many.

Jonathan Turley

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @JonathanTurley

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