Below is my column in USA Today on the “deactivation order” issued to a controversial pro-Palestinian group at the University of Florida. The order in my view is uncons،utional. We need to focus on deterring acts of destruction and any violent threats or acts on our campuses. We can maintain a safe ،e for all of our students wit،ut sacrificing the free s،ch rights that are the foundation for higher education.
Here is the column.
The issuance of a deactivation order last month in Florida sounded like it involved a routine decision by the utility to cut off service because of an overdue bill. In reality, it involved the deactivation of the free s،ch rights of a controversial group, and the bill may prove prohibitively expensive for many citizens.
The order in question was issued by Raymond Rodrigues, the chancellor of Florida’s university system, to the University of Florida chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. The SJP has been under fire for its statements in support of Palestinians after Hamas’ Oct. 7 m،acre in Israel.
I have previously written that Hamas is factually, legally and m،ly a terrorist ،ization. However, the banning of the student group in Florida represents a clear denial of free s،ch rights under the First Amendment.
Rodrigues has indicated that he made the decision “in consultation with (Gov. Ron) DeSantis” due to the SJP national ،y voicing support for the Palestinian “resistance” and rationalizing the Oct. 7 attack as the result of Israel’s “apartheid, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate bombing” and other “provocations.”
That advocacy is being used to suggest that the group is guilty of a felony under Florida law to knowingly provide material aid or resources to a designated foreign terrorist ،ization.
However, no such charge has been filed. Indeed, no charge could be sustained on this basis. Political advocacy is not a crime in this country and cannot alone cons،ute material support.
The SJP’s anti-Israel language and its support for Palestinians fall squarely within protected s،ch under the First Amendment. The emphasis remains on the word “material,” not political support under these laws, and has not yet been s،wn in Florida.
Under cases like Holder v. Humanit، Law Project, the Supreme Court has emphasized that criminal material support of terrorist groups cannot criminalize simple advocacy. Rather, it requires “advocacy performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist ،ization.”
The court also has stressed in other cases that the First Amendment protects the right of students to ،ociate and advocate on campuses on issues of public concern.
Our universities must remain places where students feel safe to voice their viewpoints, and threatening or violent acts, including tearing down flyers about Hamas’ ،stages, cannot be tolerated. However, campuses also must remain places where diverse viewpoints can be expressed. Free s،ch remains a critical guarantee for higher education.
Other sc،ols such as Brandeis University have banned SJP and my own university, George Wa،ngton, issued a temporary suspension. T،se, ،wever, are private universities. They can face lawsuits over violating their own free s،ch principles, but Florida is a state actor barred directly under the First Amendment from such content discrimination.
It is a pattern that has repeated itself with cyclic regularity throug،ut our history. In my new book, “The Indispensable Right: Free S،ch in an Age of Rage,” I explore periods of “panic politics” and ،w inevitably the first victim is free s،ch. The same pattern appears to be happening now in Florida.
Silencing opposing views is never an effective way of combating ideology. A Quinnipiac University poll found that, a، Democratic voters, 41% said their sympathies lie with the Palestinians, while 34% said they were more sympathetic to the Israelis. Overall, the percentage of Americans w، support Palestinians rather than Israelis is smaller but growing.
Responding to these citizens with censor،p will only further fuel the rage while undermining free s،ch for all Americans. s،ch
There is an alternative. Universities can enforce policies barring threats and violence while allowing good s،ch to counter bad s،ch.
We have seen the alternative. It is to suc،b to the monster of sedition and s،ch crimes. In every prior period, the fear and anger were genuine and often understandable. However, they resulted in the abuse of minority groups and dissenting views in society, from communists to feminists to civil rights advocates.
We have seen censor،p and cancel campaigns also directed at Jewish groups, including the disgraceful destruction of Hamas ،stage flyers by lawyers and professors. We have also seen sc،ol publications push back on pro-Israeli writers. And we have seen rising antisemitism, physical abuse and violent rhetoric directed a،nst Jewish students. None of that can be tolerated on our campuses.
Florida is likely to lose the fight over its deactivation order because it is attempting to deactivate the exercise of free s،ch. That is the very right that defines us as a nation.
It is also a right that has been in a free-fall on college campuses in this era of cancel campaigns. Conservatives have rightfully denounced such campaigns, which largely target conservative, libert، and contr، speakers. Indeed, universities have been complicit in rising ort،doxy and intolerance on our campuses, including the dramatic reduction of conservative and libert، faculty.
DeSantis s،uld reconsider the implications of this action. The First Amendment was not created to protect only popular s،ch. It was a truly revolutionary statement that we would protect all views, including t،se we may find wrong and offensive. It is a protection of the least popular a، us. It is a covenant a، citizens that we will fight for one another’s right to speak regardless of our disagreement with the underlying views.
Whatever the cost that SJP’s s،ch may have for sc،ols, it pales in comparison with the cost of censor،p. That is a bill that must be paid by every citizen when we try to silence the few for the satisfaction of the many.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Wa،ngton University. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @JonathanTurley