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Citing concerns about ‘personal liability’ for university administrators, Florida pauses derecognition of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters

Concerns remain after the Florida System chancellor said SJP chapters would still need to affirm their commitment to nonviolence, the details of which remain unclear.
Florida State University students attend an FSU Board of Trustees meeting where they waived Palestinian flags and chanted before being escorted out by the police

Alicia Devine / Tallahassee Democrat / USA TODAY NETWORK

Students at Florida State University attend an FSU Board of Trustees meeting where they waived Palestinian flags and chanted before being escorted out by the FSU Police Department on Nov. 10, 2023.

Censorship hits differently when you might have to pay for it yourself. 

The head of the State University System of Florida announced last night the university system is pausing its plan to shut down chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida, citing concerns about “potential personal liability for university actors” who participate in the scheme.

The remarks by Chancellor Ray Rodrigues at the Nov. 9 meeting of the Florida Board of Governors suggest UF and USF both received legal advice indicating administrators who carried out the state’s directive to violate students’ clearly established constitutional rights would not be shielded by qualified immunity, and could instead be held personally liable. 

Rodrigues’s about-face comes weeks after his office issued a memo in late October directing Florida’s state universities to shutter their SJP chapters in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and subsequent war in Gaza. The state claimed sentiments expressed by the National Students for Justice in Palestine group in its “Day of Resistance” toolkit “violated our state’s anti-terrorism statute” and thus “no chapter operating under their charter or headship or control should be active on our campuses here in Florida.”

Students shouldn’t be compelled to disavow certain disfavored views in exchange for funding and recognition.

In response, FIRE warned the directive was “a dangerous — and unconstitutional — threat to free speech. If it goes unchallenged, no one’s political beliefs will be safe from government suppression.”

Given his apparent recognition that Florida’s plan to shut down SJP chapters would have run afoul of the First Amendment, Chancellor Rodrigues should have stopped there and recommitted to protecting everyone’s First Amendment rights in this challenging moment. Instead, he said the state will replace one unconstitutional mandate with another by requiring SJP chapters to sign an “affirmation” denouncing Hamas. It is unclear what will happen if they refuse.

“We are working with the two universities to seek an express affirmation from their campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine,” said Chancellor Rodrigues. “Within that affirmation will be three components: That they reject violence, that they reject they are a part of the Hamas movement, and that they will follow the law.” 

While universities can ask all student groups to commit to following the law, they cannot force them to expressly renounce a particular ideology or otherwise express views they don’t actually hold.

Flags of Israel and Palestine

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalates, so must our commitment to free speech


FIRE has long defended the free speech rights of speakers on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Students shouldn’t be compelled to disavow certain disfavored views in exchange for funding and recognition. Compelling speech violates the First Amendment. Worse, the selective application here to only certain student groups compounds the problem. Could the chancellor force pro-Israel student groups to renounce violence, citing the invasion of Gaza? Of course not. Likewise, it cannot force the pro-Palestinian group to renounce its views.

The Supreme Court of the United States held in Healy v. James that public universities may not deny recognition to a student organization simply because administrators think the group will be disruptive. In Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, the Court ruled that public universities may not engage in viewpoint discrimination when allocating funds to registered student organizations, later affirming this principle in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, declaring that funds must be distributed in a viewpoint neutral manner.

The law is clear: States cannot force universities to punish students for expressing their political views, nor can they force those students to publicly renounce those views. Florida seems to have belatedly remembered the first point; now it must recall the second.

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