Legal experts say efforts likely illegal under Gov. DeSantis to shut down pro-Palestinian college groups
Image via Fresh Take Florida.

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'Given that they're students at a public university, First Amendment rights shouldn't be infringed.'

Legal experts are skeptical over a move by the Ron DeSantis administration to shut down pro-Palestinian student organizations on college campuses in Florida by employing a state law intended to punish providing material support to terrorists.

The experts cited a 2010 Supreme Court case that ruled the federal version of the terrorism law doesn’t prohibit independent advocacy or expression even about groups designated as terrorism organizations, but narrowly limited specific conduct toward such groups that include offering expert advice or assistance.

They described efforts by the Governor and the State University System to deactivate chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine on at least two campuses — including the University of Florida (UF) — as an aggressive and likely unconstitutional application of the terrorism law because it would limit students’ rights to protected speech.

“Such rights are critical to a functioning democracy, no matter how distasteful the person’s politics or speech may be,” said Fritz Scheller, an Orlando lawyer who represented a former UF student sentenced last week under the federal terrorism law to three years in prison for flying to the Middle East to join the terrorist group ISIS. “At its core, political advocacy and free speech encourage and depend on the free exchange of ideas.”

In Scheller’s case, Mohammad Suliman twice tried in 2006 and 2009 to join al-Shabaab, another terrorist group, and in 2014 flew to Turkey to sneak across the Syrian border to join ISIS. The Justice Department charged him under the law that prohibits offering material support — including Suliman himself — to any terror group. Suliman wasn’t accused merely of expressing support for those groups’ fight against Western countries.

Gov. DeSantis, who has called Florida “the freest state in these United States,” has made unqualified support for Israel since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas part of his campaign platform for the Republican presidential nomination. The surprise attacks killed roughly 1,400 Israelis, and the subsequent fighting in and near Gaza has killed more than 5,000 Palestinians.

Another lawyer, Vincent Citro of Orlando, also cited the Supreme Court case as problematic for efforts by the Governor to shut down the student chapters. Citro, who has represented defendants charged in the U.S. Capitol insurrection in 2021, formerly was a federal prosecutor with the Justice Department.

Citro said the student groups could ask a federal judge to block the Governor’s efforts as violating their First Amendment rights.

In a directive from Tallahassee earlier this week, the government ordered the universities to deactivate the chapters and said the national organization described the Hamas attacks as “a surprise operation against the Zionist enemy” and said its members were “PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”

Democrats objected. State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said the order was unconstitutional. “Politicians cannot and should not dictate what speech is allowed or not allowed on college campuses,” Eskamani, who is Iranian-American, said in a statement.

The status of the chapter at the state’s flagship university — which has more Jewish students than any other university in the United States — was unclear. It was still listed as operational Friday on the school’s directory of student organizations, and its faculty adviser, English professor Malini Johar Schueller, said earlier this week she had received no guidance from UF about the chapter’s future. The chapter President resigned Thursday.

In a statement earlier this week, the chapter called the demands to shut down the group “disgraceful.” It added: “Governor DeSantis continues to disrespect American values such as freedom of speech to extend his political power.”

The university administration has declined to respond to phone calls and emails about the issue since Wednesday.

No organization by Friday had filed any legal challenge against the DeSantis administration’s orders in federal courts in Florida.

Another expert, law professor Wadie Said of the University of Colorado, said if any government agency genuinely believed the student chapters were providing material support to Hamas, they would be aggressively investigating the groups.

“There would be intensive investigations,” said Said, a former federal public defender and son of the prominent Palestinian-American academic Edward Said. He also cited the Supreme Court case as protecting the students’ rights to protest the violence of Israel’s response in Gaza and generations of suffering by Palestinians across the region.

“Given that they’re students at a public university, First Amendment rights shouldn’t be infringed,” Said said.

Meanwhile, a national free-speech group urged Florida universities to refuse to comply with the state’s directive to close the student chapters. The director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a group based in Philadelphia, said the government’s efforts were illegal.

Earlier this month, an influential state lawmaker, Palm Bay Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, said any Florida college or university student organization that has attempted to “justify the killing of Jews” must be expelled immediately, and should lose their funding. Fine, who is Jewish, also called for students participating in rallies expressing such beliefs to be expelled, and any faculty member who has “propagated, excused, or encouraged this genocide” to be fired.

The state memo also followed a statement earlier this month by the University of Florida’s new President, former Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, who said it was “beneath people called to educate our next generation of Americans” to offer anything other than unqualified support for Israel. In the same statement, Sasse promised to defend free speech on campus.

“We will protect our students and we will protect speech,” he said. “This is always true: Our Constitution protects the rights of people to make abject idiots of themselves.”


This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at  [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.

Fresh Take Florida


  • Earl Pitts "America's BIG VOICE on The Right" American

    October 27, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    Good afternoon America,
    What we have in the above article is a well written and properly puncuated article.
    Only items which I, Earl Pitts American, would take issue with is an honesty/integrity issue. The title along with the body of the article could have made it clear that the legal experts were not a random sampling but consisted of all “Dook 4 Brains Leftist” legal experts.
    Other than those little minor issues of honesty along with integrity it was pretty good.article.

    • Earl Pitts is a Pedophile

      October 27, 2023 at 1:07 pm

      Make the world a safer & happier place by hanging yourself today Earl. Pedophiles like you don’t deserve to live.

      • Earl Pitts "America's BIG VOICE on The Right" American

        October 27, 2023 at 5:09 pm

        Thank you my nasty enemy,
        You just received my, Earl Pitts American’s, higest level of Chastizement. Let me clue you into whats going to happen.
        First it will be a few “little almost un-noticeable things” you will not be able to P00P because your sphincter wont relax, then as you are driving to the Walgreens for some P00P medicine you will have an annoying fender bender with a belligerant member of another race. Y’all will get in a fight and one of your front teeth gets knocked out. You will accidently swallow your tooth and wonder how you will ever P00P it out with your sphincter on painfull lock down.
        And my enemy thats just the begining. At some point in the Chastizement process it will finally register in your Dook 4 Brains and you will scream at the sky; “Woe is me Why was I not nicer to that Great Guy, Earl Pitts American???

    • Julia

      October 27, 2023 at 3:06 pm

      I ­­­­­­a­­m ­­­­ma­­k­­i­­ng 28­­5­­ Dollars e­­a­­ch­­ h­­o­­u­­r ­­­­f­­o­­r w­­o­­r­­ki­­n­­g­­ ­­­­on­­l­­i­­n­­e. ­­I n­­e­­v­­e­­r ­­­­t­­h­­o­­u­­g­­h­­t ­­­­t­­h­­a­­t ­­­­i­­t ­­­­w­­a­­s ­­­­l­­e­­g­­i­­t­­ b­­u­­t­­­­ ­­m­­y­­ ­­­­­­b­­e­­s­­t­­­­ ­­f­­r­­i­­e­­n­­d­­ ­­e­­a­­r­­n­­s ­­­­29,0­­0­­0 d­­o­­l­­l­­a­­r­­s ­­­­ev­­e­­r­­y ­­m­­o­­n­­t­­h d­­­­o­­i­­n­­g t­­h­­i­­s a­­n­­d­­ s­­h­­e ­­­­sh­­o­­w­­e­­d ­­bs10 m­­e­­ ­­h­­o­­w­­. C­­h­­e­­c­­k ­­i­­t ­­o­­u­­t ­­b­­y

      V­­i­­s­­i­­t­­i­­n­­­­­­­g f­­­­­­­ol­­­­­­­lo­­­­­­­w­­­­­­­in­­­­­­­g­­­­­­ L­­i­­n­­k…………………………………………..

  • My Take

    October 27, 2023 at 1:04 pm

    DeSSlantis and Fine — unAmericans.
    Making Florida fascist.

  • Elmo

    October 27, 2023 at 3:33 pm

    Interesting. All the while DeSantis says nothing about Nazi demonstrations in the state of Florida. Oh that’s right. They are part of his voting base.

  • Bill Pollard

    October 27, 2023 at 5:21 pm

    What an insult to just decide all Palestinians are terrorists! If someone is caught supporting terrorism that is one thing, but people have a right to freedom of speech. They have the right to form organizations that cater to their cultural interests. I’m certain what was proclaimed is illegal and unconstitutional.

  • My Take

    October 27, 2023 at 5:59 pm

    I wonder how Florida’s school geography textbooks label the Palestinian Territories on maps?

  • ScienceBLVR

    October 27, 2023 at 9:05 pm

    Ok…so it was 1978 and Nazis in Skokie, but free speech is still a right upheld by SCOTUS, I hope.
    President Carter issued a statement: “I must respect the decision of the Supreme Court allowing this group (the Nazis) to express their views, even when those views are despicable and ugly as they are in this case. But if such views must be expressed, I am pleased they will not go unanswered. That is why I want to voice my complete solidarity with those citizens of Skokie and Chicago who will gather Sunday in a peaceful demonstration of their abhorrence of Nazism.”

Comments are closed.


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