DeSantis Wants to Ban a Palestinian Student Group’s Campus Chapters. Is That Legal?
Over the last several weeks, campus chapters of National Students for Justice in Palestine have staged tense, at times combative protests and spread messaging celebrating and justifying the deadly attacks by Hamas militants in Israel. The student group has also blamed Israel for “every single death” in the violence, according to one of its tool kits.
Now, politicians and Jewish advocacy groups say college administrators should kick the groups off campus for supporting what the United States and Europe deem a terrorist organization, and making Jewish students feel unsafe.
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Over the last several weeks, campus chapters of National Students for Justice in Palestine have staged tense, at times combative protests and spread messaging celebrating and justifying the deadly attacks by Hamas militants in Israel on October 7. The student group has also blamed Israel for “every single death” in the violence, according to one of its tool kits.
Now, politicians and Jewish advocacy groups say college administrators should kick the groups off campus for supporting what the United States and European Union deem a terrorist organization, and making Jewish students feel unsafe.
Would that be legal? No matter how inflammatory or offensive speech from a student group may appear, much of it is still protected under the U.S. Constitution, according to several legal experts who spoke to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Besides, free-speech advocates said, censoring student activists sets a bad precedent and discourages open debate, a core college tenet.
On Tuesday, Raymond Rodrigues, chancellor of Florida’s state-university system, in consultation with Gov. Ron DeSantis, called on colleges in the system to “deactivate” their Students for Justice in Palestine chapters. The memo stated that a tool kit from the national SJP used language that supports Hamas, the organization that runs the Gaza territory, which effectively violates a Florida statute that prohibits anyone from providing “material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization,” they said.
Two days later, the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law sent a letter to 200 colleges that “urgently” requested each administration investigate whether its chapters of the SJP are supported by a foreign terrorist organization, a potential violation of federal and state laws.
“There is no more solemn obligation than securing the safety and well-being of your student body,” the letter said. “Jews across campus are under attack, and for no other reason than the fact that they are Jews,” the letter continued. “We are asking University Presidents to ... ensure that there is no material support being provided to terrorist organizations.”
SJP’s national branch has mobilized chapters on some 200 campuses, encouraging them to participate in protests and classroom walkouts. They have also told students, in two tool kits posted for the chapters, to spread their position.
In response to the SJP’s actions, donors, Jewish-rights activists, board members, and politicians have called on college leaders to denounce the group.
SJP’s national office did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did chapter offices at the University of Florida or the University of South Florida.
Those chapters have in recent days led protests during the SJP’s National Day of Resistance, issued statements in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and held vigils for those who have died in the Israel-Hamas war.
When President Ben Sasse of the University of Florida said his institution would protect its Jewish students from violence, the campus SJP chapter said in response that the college had neglected students who support the Palestinian people.
On Wednesday, Palestine Legal, an advocacy group for supporters of Palestinian rights, released a statement saying the governor’s memo was “filled with erroneous factual and legal claims that seek to distract from, distort, and silence the message of student activists across the United States.”
“The claim relies on the broad and vague ‘material support for terrorism’ regime, which criminalizes even nonviolent coordination with designated terrorist organizations,” Palestine Legal’s statement says. It closes by saying, “This is a blatant attack on students’ First Amendment rights, and it will be challenged in court.”
According to three legal experts, DeSantis and Rodrigues’s call for deactivating the chapters has no legal standing and, if challenged, would probably not hold up in court.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project that the First Amendment does not protect speech that “materially supports” foreign terrorist organizations. The case, though, referred only to speech that has been directly coordinated with a terrorist organization, not necessarily to groups that support a terrorist organization, said Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University.
Consequently, Feldman said, members of SJP can say something in support of Hamas and still be protected under the First Amendment. Since there isn’t any proof that the SJP is working directly with Hamas or speaking through a Hamas website, DeSantis and Rodriguez’s ban would most likely be turned down in court, he said.
Keith E. Whittington, a political-science professor at Princeton University, pointed to Healy v. James, a similar Supreme Court case in 1972. Following reports of violence from other chapters of Students for a Democratic Society, the president of Central Connecticut State College denied official club status to the left-leaning advocacy group, known for its activism against the Vietnam War.
The court determined that “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment,” according to the opinion. Groups also can’t be barred based on an expectation that they will do something against the law, or that other associated groups are engaging in that behavior, Whittington said.
“It seems to me this is pretty much what DeSantis is trying to claim here — because these students are affiliated with a group that might be doing something bad someplace else, that has consequences for them,” Whittington said. “The governor wants to point to what is clearly just political rhetoric, and assert that somehow it’s aiding and abetting terrorists.”
Neither DeSantis nor a spokesperson for Rodrigues responded to requests for comment.
The governor wants to point to what is clearly just political rhetoric, and assert that somehow it’s aiding and abetting terrorists.
The Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law have also said that the SJP’s speech poses a threat to the Jewish community, giving colleges further reason to be concerned about the chapters.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that any college that has an actionable reason to ban a student organization, such as violating the civil rights of Jewish students, should do so.
“That kind of rhetoric, those kinds of threats, are clearly antisemitic,” Greenblatt said. “Any campus organization that would characterize terrorism against civilians as a ‘historic win’ — that should not be welcome on any college campus.”
Kenneth L. Marcus, founder and chairman of the Brandeis Center, urged private colleges to “move quickly to dismantle their SJP chapters.”
In 2016, Marcus pointed out, Fordham University refused to recognize a new SJP chapter, calling it too “polarizing.” The group later sued the private university and won, and began operating on campus. But Fordham appealed the judge’s decision, and a New York court approved the appeal, allowing the university to remove the group from campus.
While Marcus used Fordham’s experience as an example of private colleges’ right to eliminate groups whose views aren’t consistent with their values, Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said that even a private college would probably be facing an “uphill battle” in a case like Fordham’s.
All colleges need to be careful about allowing groups to use their facilities and resources in ways that “may provide support to a State Department-designated terrorist organization,” Marcus said.
“Jewish students are scared like they’ve never been scared before,” Marcus said. “Anxiety levels are through the roof. Kids don’t want to go to class or cross campus.”
But speech that simply makes a person feel unsafe is still protected under the First Amendment, said Steinbaugh. In order to ban a student organization, he said, that group would have to produce unprotected speech, such as a statement that “means to convey and to engage in violence or incitement” or that is “intended to, and likely to, cause imminent lawless action.”
A group may also be banned if it violates a specific college’s code of conduct by engaging in lawless behavior or violating other students’ rights, Whittington, the Princeton professor, said. That could include disrupting a class or event, as well as harassing individual students, he said.
Colleges should be careful not to blame the act of one person on an entire organization, Whittington said.
Whittington pointed to an incident at Drexel University on October 16, when someone set fire to decorations on a Jewish student’s door. The university is investigating whether the incident is a hate crime.
Similar events have occurred on other college campuses over the past few weeks, including the discovery of swastikas drawn on dorm doors at American and Stanford Universities. At the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a group of pro-Palestinian student protesters followed a group of Jewish counterprotesters into a library, where they banged on locked doors and yelled pro-Palestinian slogans. And at Tulane University, a viral post on the social-media platform X showed pro-Palestinian protesters attacking a Jewish student.
Even though it’s unclear whether the students involved in the incidents were SJP members, footage and outcry over the incidents have gone viral, fueling concern over the organization.
“That’s what you’d have to be looking for, I think,” Whittington said. “Not, did you have a rally in which people said terrible things, but instead really focusing much more attention on, are you engaged in a much more targeted speech?”
Andrew Bates, deputy press secretary at the White House, on Thursday called out in a statement to The Times of Israel the “extremely disturbing pattern of antisemitic messages being conveyed on college campuses.”
“Just over the past week, we’ve seen protests and statements on college campuses that call for the annihilation of the State of Israel; for genocide against the Jewish people. Jewish students have even had to barricade themselves inside buildings,” Bates told the publication.
Trying to limit speech, especially generalized rhetoric, still comes with consequences, even if it probably won’t hold up in court, said Steinbaugh. Preventing this type of speech creates a dangerous precedent, he said. It also makes groups that don’t have the best means to protect themselves, such as students, even more vulnerable to being censored, he added.
Palestine Legal released a report documenting various ways pro-Palestinian advocacy groups have been suppressed on college campuses in the past. Students and faculty describe personal accounts of the groups’ requiring more security and registration steps on campus, and the report documented 152 incidents of “censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights” in 2014, the year it was published.
Adhering to the First Amendment is “going to mean that we allow people legally to advance ideas or views that we find loathsome now and maybe we find loathsome forever,” Steinbaugh said. “But the more that you expand categories of unprotected speech, it allows authoritarians and the powerful to suppress the speech of others who do not have the political means or the legal means or the wealth to defend themselves.”
Though DeSantis and Rodrigues’s order is “performative,” Steinbaugh said, it also creates a chilling effect for other students. Not only does it say that these groups must be disbanded and reformed, but it also identifies protected speech as a criminal act, he said.
“If you are a student, and you’re being told that your organization is engaged in material support of terrorism, why would you continue to be affiliated with any student organization?” Steinbaugh said. “Why would you engage in protected expression at all?”
To Feldman, all administrators must state their principles of academic freedom clearly, and, if they’re a public university, stress that they will always permit free speech under the First Amendment.
“When there’s controversy on campuses with lots of students deeply engaged, that’s when you need, as an institution, to remind everybody and clarify for all parts of the university, from faculty to staff to students, ‘what are the principles that the university stands for?’” he said.