TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration is taking the extraordinary step of ordering state universities to ban a pro-Palestinian student organization from campuses, saying it illegally backs Hamas militants who attacked Israel earlier this month.
As Israel’s attacks on Gaza have intensified, some college students have expressed solidarity with Palestinians, resulting in swift censure from some Jewish academics and even some prospective employers. But Florida has gone further, saying Students for Justice in Palestine is supporting a “terrorist organization.”
State university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues wrote to university presidents Tuesday at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ urging, directing them to disband chapters of SJP. He quoted the national group’s declaration that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”
“It is a felony under Florida law to ‘knowingly provide material support … to a designated foreign terrorist organization,’” Rodrigues said in the letter.
The U.S. State Department designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1997. The European Union and other Western countries also consider it a terrorist organization.
Hamas won 2006 parliamentary elections and in 2007 violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority, dominated by rival Fatah movement, administers semi-autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
DeSantis, who is running for president, has ramped up his pro-Israel stance since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, which led to pro- and anti-Israel demonstrations around the world and prompted Israel to respond with airstrikes. The governor has sent planes to Israel to provide supplies and return Floridians there who want to come back.
He also is supporting a special legislative session to impose new sanctions on Iran, which supports Hamas, and to express support for Israel. So far, no government has presented evidence that Iran was directly involved in carrying out the attacks.
Students for Justice in Palestine has been on U.S. campuses for decades, with frequent protests calling for the liberation of Palestinians and boycotts against Israel. The loosely connected network says it has more than 200 chapters across the United States.
Palestine Legal, a group that provides legal support for pro-Palestinian groups, said the ban on SJP is part of a broader effort by DeSantis to suppress freedom of speech on campuses.
“Florida, particularly under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, has been actively undermining education, freedom of speech and social justice movements, including by banning anti-racist courses and trying to criminalize protests. It is not surprising that this egregious move to silence the student movement for Palestinian rights is being pursued under DeSantis,” it said Wednesday in a statement.
Under DeSantis, Florida has limited how race can be discussed in schools, prohibited state universities from spending money on diversity, equality and inclusion programs and taken other actions that critics say limit free speech on campus.
SJP has played a central role in a campus movement known as BDS, calling for the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. The national group didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech group, called Florida’s directive unconstitutional and dangerous and said the government does not have the legal authority to force colleges to ban SJP chapters.
“If it goes unchallenged, no one’s political beliefs will be safe from government suppression,” the group said in a statement.
The ban came after the only Jewish Republican in the state Legislature switched his support in the presidential election from DeSantis to former President Donald Trump, saying DeSantis doesn’t back up his pro-Israel words with action.
Rep. Randy Fine, who has advised DeSantis on Israel and Jewish policy, said he had called on the administration to take action against the student group but there was none until he released a strongly worded op-ed explaining his decision to switch his endorsement.
“It shouldn’t have taken me endorsing Trump to make it happen. I was begging them for two weeks and was just getting the Heisman at every turn,” Fine said, referring to the college football trophy depicting a player holding his arm out to fend off opponents.
The governor’s office said the ban was in the works for more than a week, however.
“The action, taken by the administration had nothing to do with Representative Fine. Any implication otherwise is nothing more than political grandstanding. Randy Fine is not the center of our universe,” DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern said via email.
Students for Justice in Palestine and several other groups called for a national student walkout on college campuses Wednesday to demand an end to Israeli attacks on Gaza and to U.S. financial backing for Israel. Walkouts were planned campuses from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to the University of California, Los Angeles.
Binkley reported from Washington, D.C.