Protesters gather during an Emergency Rally for Gaza along Fowler Avenue near the USF campus in Tampa on Wednesday. The organizers included members of Students for Justice in Palestine, a group targeted by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who ordered it deactivated on the USF campus. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The head of Florida’s university system has directed schools to disband campus chapters of a pro-Palestinian student group he alleges are aligned in support of terrorists.

In a letter Tuesday to the state’s 12 university presidents, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said two Florida chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine “must be deactivated.” A spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis said the governor directed that the University of Florida and the University of South Florida remove the groups immediately.

Rodrigues’ letter said that a “toolkit” released by the group described the Oct. 7 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.’”

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The letter contended that the national Students for Justice in Palestine organization has “affirmatively identified” that it was part of the attack, and said it’s a felony in Florida to “knowingly provide material support … to a designated foreign terrorist organization.”

Rodrigues closed by stating the university system is working with DeSantis “to ensure we are all using all tools at our disposal to crack down on campus demonstrations that delve beyond protected First Amendment speech into harmful support for terrorist groups.”

He added that state action could include “necessary adverse employment actions and suspensions for school officials.”

The chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida responded with a statement calling the move “disgraceful.”

“Governor DeSantis continues to disrespect American values such as freedom of speech to extend his political power,” the statement said in part. “To bend the law in this manner shows the utmost disrespect not only to any pro-Palestinian organization, but also to anyone who truly cares for political freedom and freedom of speech.”

It added that the state’s action could set a precedent to shut down any organization that doesn’t align with the governor’s ideals.

Student organizations are funded with student fees that are allocated by student governments.

Rodrigues’ letter said members of the campus chapters being disbanded by the state will be allowed to form new organizations that comply with state law.

The “toolkit” he referred to was designed by the national group to provide guidance for campus protesters.

While the state’s action focused on Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at UF and USF, the group appears to have a presence at more Florida schools, including Florida State University and Florida International University. However, only the UF and USF chapters have active charters registered with their schools, a university system spokesperson said.

In a statement Wednesday, UF said it would evaluate its registered student organizations to see if any are affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine, and determine if any members have carried out the actions mentioned in Rodrigues’ letter. “We protect students’ right to free speech and free assembly,” the statement said, “but any formal student organization that engages in unlawful conduct … loses its registration status, and is subject to other state penalties as outlined in law.”

USF said in a statement it was reviewing Rodrigues’ letter. Leaders of the national Students for Justice in Palestine organization and its USF chapter did not respond to requests for comment.

Rodrigues’ message builds on a previous letter he sent on Oct. 9 with state education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. That letter cautioned protesters who might go too far in criticizing Israel and reminded universities “of their obligations to punish violators” of two state laws.

It cited House Bill 741, which DeSantis signed into law in 2019, setting requirements for public schools, colleges and universities to address discrimination against Jewish students and employees. It also pointed to House Bill 269, which DeSantis signed this year to establish stronger criminal penalties for committing certain antisemitic crimes.

In the wake of the Hamas attack and Israel’s response with the war in Gaza, Rodrigues and Diaz attempted to define actions that constituted antisemitism under Florida law.

Their letter said those actions include ”calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews, often in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.” Another example: “Applying a double standard to Israel by requiring behavior of Israel that is not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, or focusing peace or human rights investigations only in Israel.”

Rabbi Jonah Zinn, executive director at the Hillel organization for Jewish students at UF, said the national Students for Justice in Palestine organization has long “contributed to a harmful and unsafe environment for Jewish college students across the country.” Since Oct. 7, he said, the group has “celebrated the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas — and called for more violence.”

Val Beron, an activist with Tampa Bay Community Action Committee, had a different view as he participated in an Emergency Rally for Gaza on Wednesday afternoon on Fowler Avenue near the main entrance to USF, just off campus.

The group, which helped organize the rally, “has been on campus for years and has never threatened the safety of Jewish students,” Beron said. “I don’t see why people would feel threatened now.”

About 200 people participated in the rally, which drew a law enforcement presence. The group chanted, “USF, we see you. You support genocide, too.”

At the same time in Gainesville, hundreds of people participated in a walkout organized by Islam on Campus at UF, the UF Arab Student Association, Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. While most hoisted signs and shouted slogans in support of Palestinians, many also were there to protest DeSantis’ order.

Gainesville resident Joe Hill joined a walkout at the University of Florida to protest treatment of Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday. His sign also commented on Gov. Ron DeSantis' order to “deactivate” a pro-Palestinian student group on campus. It referred to the governor as “king?”
Gainesville resident Joe Hill joined a walkout at the University of Florida to protest treatment of Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday. His sign also commented on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to “deactivate” a pro-Palestinian student group on campus. It referred to the governor as “king?” [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]

Tarek Ayoub, who lives near campus, came with concerns about his son, who is serving in the U.S. Army. One side of his sign said “Zionism is racism,” the other “Jews against occupation.”

Florida officials have it wrong, he said. ”They just want to shut everybody up.”

The group marched down University Avenue and into Turlington Plaza at the center of campus.

Joseph Nohava — an organizer with Tampa Bay Community Action Committee — said the earlier letter by Rodrigues lacked nuance. He noted that protesters who are Jewish have spoken against the Israeli government.

“The whole thing is absurd,” Nohava said. “It doesn’t sound like something that would hold up in court. … Israel doesn’t represent Judaism. You don’t conflate a whole religion with a state committing war crimes.”

Enya Silva, a member of Students for a Democratic Society, said she found the definitions to be absurd. “I think we have power in numbers,” she said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to come out and speak out for being on the right side of history.”

A statement Wednesday from the American Association of University Professors called on universities to protect the academic freedom of faculty across the country in “expressing politically controversial views.” The organization said it was “alarmed by a number of apparent academic freedom issues nationwide involving faculty speech on the Israeli-Hamas conflict.”

Another group, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said in a statement that DeSantis’ directive is “a dangerous — and unconstitutional — threat to free speech.”

It said Rodrigues’ letter did not detail any actions by the student chapters in Florida that warranted the order.

“If it goes unchallenged, no one’s political beliefs will be safe from government suppression,” the foundation’s statement said.

Divya Kumar covers higher education and Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.