In recent years, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has shown that a pro-business authoritarianism can be built by wielding the culture wars to shut down left activism and opposition, on issues ranging from labor organizing to racial justice to climate change. DeSantis’s latest move—to repress the pro-Palestine movement—is a manifestation of these regressive tactics. It also underscores his longer-term commitment to authoritarian policies targeting Palestinians and their supporters, which predate his broader Trumpian attacks on leftist causes.
DeSantis’s most recent attack on the pro-Palestine movement came in late October. In a letter issued by the head of Florida’s State University System Ray Rodrigues, chapters of the nationwide student organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were banned from operating on state university campuses. According to Chancellor Rodrigues, the ban responds to actions taken by National SJP—rather than the SJP chapters themselves—that purportedly violate the criminal prohibition against providing material support to designated terrorist organizations.
Florida’s ban is unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny both because the evidentiary and legal bases for the ban—including its claims against National SJP—are weak and because it clearly violates the First Amendment. This does not, of course, undo the harm Florida’s ban has already done. By equating support for Palestine with support for terrorism, the ban revives the material support concept’s historically discriminatory focus on Palestinians and contributes to an already hostile environment when it comes to pro-Palestine activism. It also threatens good faith dialogue between students who disagree about the legitimacy of Israel’s ongoing siege and bombing of Gaza.
More broadly, the ban provides a blueprint for future repression. Given the current climate, we should expect similar actions targeting Palestinians and their allies in other states. Persistent attacks against left-leaning causes from various Republican-led state governments suggest the ban could also be expanded to target other disfavored groups, including those advocating for equality and justice along lines of race, gender, and sexuality.
National SJP and the Abuse of Material Support Laws
National SJP provides support to over 200 chapters across the United States and Canada. As reflected on its website, National SJP seeks to “promote . . . freedom, solidarity, equality, safety, and historical justice,” in the service of Palestinian liberation, an aim it advances by coordinating campaigns, carrying out political education, and building an organizing community. National SJP does not claim any commitments to or involvement with particular political, social, or armed Palestinian groups. Nor is there any evidence that National SJP or chapter organizations focus on anything other than non-violent, campus-based political activism.
As reflected in the Chancellor’s letter, the state of Florida is now accusing this peaceful, independent pro-Palestine student organization of providing material support to Hamas—the Palestinian political party and armed group designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization since 1997. Based on these allegations, Florida claims National SJP has violated Florida Statute 775.33, which incorporates the two most important federal criminal material support statutes, 28 U.S.C. § 2339A (“Section 2339A”) and 28 U.S. § 2339B (“Section 2339B”). Florida’s allegations against National SJP rely on the more flexible Section 2339B approach, which prohibits material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations, as long as the accused knows about the group’s designation or that it engages in terrorist activity. Material support itself is a notoriously broad concept and includes a wide variety of aid, including providing “services,” “expert advice,” and “personnel” to terrorist groups or activities.
In accusing National SJP of providing “material support” to Hamas, the Chancellor’s letter relies exclusively on a recent “tool kit” allegedly released by National SJP sometime in early October. That tool kit consists of a five-page document with organizing tools and messaging for a national day of protest in solidarity with Palestinians. Glossing over this context, the Chancellor’s letter focuses primarily on one statement contained in the kit: “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.” Based on this decontextualized, cherry-picked statement, the Chancellor’s letter concludes that National SJP “has affirmatively identified it is part of. . .a terrorist led attack,” the latter phrase referring to the deliberate killing of civilians and hostage-taking by various Palestinian armed groups—including Hamas—inside Israel on October 7.
These accusations against National SJP bring the material support concept back to its discriminatory, anti-Palestinian roots. Section 2339B was created in the mid-1990s largely to prevent resources from flowing to Palestinian armed groups, their affiliates, and supporters. As the congressional record shows (and as I discuss in forthcoming work), in the lead up to Section 2339B’s passage, proponents of the law described it as necessary to prevent U.S. charities—which were largely Muslim and/or Arab—from raising money for groups like Hamas under the guise of supporting the social and humanitarian needs of Palestinians. With little to no credible evidence for these claims, supporters of Section 2339B implicitly relied on narratives that had been promoted by Israeli officials—including Israel’s now Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu—in the preceding decades that equated terrorism with Arabs and Muslims generally and Palestinians in particular.
Thanks to Section 2339B’s broad scope, a person or organization seeking to provide nearly any kind of support to Palestinians does so at their own risk—a reality reflected in infamous and much-criticized federal criminal prosecutions against charities sending humanitarian aid to Palestine, as well as against individuals speaking and writing in favor of the Palestinian cause. Indeed, various NGOs, including ones based in Israel, have harnessed Section 2339B’s civil analogue to sue those providing support to persons or organizations with even the slightest, indirect connection to groups designated as so-called terrorist organizations in Palestine—further increasing the overall legal risks of aiding Palestinians.
Evidentiary and Legal Issues with the Ban
In addition to reviving these troubling trends and historical legacies, Florida’s ban against the SJP chapters has both evidentiary and legal problems. First, assuming the tool kit belongs to National SJP—it does not appear on the group’s website or have any emblems or unique identifiers showing that it was produced by the organization—the statement referenced in the Chancellor’s letter hardly shows that National SJP is involved in any “terrorist activity,” let alone in the October 7 attack. The Chancellor’s letter also provides no evidence demonstrating how or why National SJP’s actions or statements should be attributed to the Florida chapters.
Second, the letter exhibits a lack of specificity regarding the type of material support; how it was knowingly provided by National SJP to Hamas; and the connection between that alleged support and the SJP chapters themselves. The Chancellor’s letter, for example, neither clarifies how anything National SJP does or has done—whether in the tool kit or otherwise—satisfies the definition of material support, nor articulates how National SJP knowingly provided such material support to Hamas. At best, the letter suggests that National SJP’s national protest day was a response to calls from Hamas military leaders “for the mobilization of Palestinians in support of the [October 7 attack].” There is, however, no evidence substantiating that claim. Indeed, it is just as, if not more, plausible that National SJP’s protest call—like many recent demonstrations that have erupted around the globe—responded to Israel’s substantial escalation in violence against Palestinians across the occupied Palestinian territories since October 7.
Even assuming Florida has made out a colorable material support claim, its ban also violates the SJP chapters’ First Amendment rights. This remains true whether the ban is viewed as coming from the state itself or from Florida’s state universities, which are part and parcel of the state.
There is little doubt the Florida ban impacts protected speech acts, as it targets classic political speech—namely National SJP’s advocacy on Palestine—imputes that speech to the SJP chapters, and then uses that imputation to shut down the chapters and prevent them from exercising their free speech rights. In this fashion, the ban highlights enduring problems with the material support concept, whose expansive breadth sweeps in First Amendment-protected activities. In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Supreme Court refused to meaningfully curb these effects and protect the First Amendment from material support’s corrosive reach. It did, however, make clear that the material support prohibition does not apply to certain kinds of First Amendment activities arguably at play here.
In Holder, the Supreme Court held that the prohibition against material support reaches non-violent, speech-based acts that support designated terrorist organizations, as long as those acts are coordinated with the group. At the same time, the Court also clearly stated that the material support ban does not apply to First Amendment protected activity that is not “coordinated” with a designated terrorist organization. As the Court held, persons “who act entirely independently of the foreign terrorist organization to advance its goals or objectives” do not violate the prohibition on material support.
While Holder focused on a federal material support provision, its holding applies to the Florida material support statute, which must be interpreted in line with applicable federal material support laws. Applying Holder to the Florida ban, the First Amendment rights of the SJP chapters have undoubtedly been violated, since Florida has provided no evidence that National SJP’s advocacy work is coordinated with Hamas or any other designated terrorist organization.
While shocking, Florida’s decision to ban its SJP chapters is both in-line with enduring anti-Palestinian mobilization—long embraced by DeSantis, as well as other actors across the country—and likely to inspire copycat moves. Given the current political climate, the Florida ban may also be turned against other kinds of student groups in the near future.
For decades, pro-Israel groups have promoted the notion that any involvement with Palestinians or Palestinian organizations is tantamount either to engaging in terrorism or antisemitism. These arguments have been used, in part, to discredit peaceful, nonviolent pro-Palestine advocacy, both inside and outside universities. For instance, organizations like the Israel Allies Foundation and the Israel Project have convinced numerous states to pass laws penalizing individuals and organizations participating in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (“BDS”) movement—a grassroots effort advocating for non-violent pressure tactics to be used against Israel until it complies with its international law obligations toward the Palestinian people. In 2016, Florida adopted one of these anti-BDS laws. DeSantis—who was a congressional representative from Florida at the time—spoke out in support of the law, describing BDS as “a form of economic warfare against Israel that is rooted in antisemitism and that seeks to delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state.”
Over the past several years, pro-Israel groups, like the AMCHA Initiative and the Zionist Organization of America, have also used federal civil rights laws to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education accusing universities of promoting antisemitism by allowing pro-Palestine advocacy on their campuses. In a further attempt to quash pro-Palestine speech, these groups and their allies have pushed for the adoption of a new definition of antisemitism—including at the university level—that expands the term to include criticisms of Israel. Early in his tenure as governor, DeSantis pushed for and passed a bill that incorporated this expansive definition of anti-semitism into Florida law.
In raising the specter of criminal penalties, the Florida SJP ban represents a dangerous escalation of these practices. While students and professors who are pro-Palestine have long been doxed for their advocacy (most recently by the rightwing group Accuracy in Media) and while some—including law school faculty members—have recently called for employment opportunities to be rescinded, as well as for other punishments to be meted out against pro-Palestine students, it is a shocking and unprecedented move for a state or any government entity in the United States to effectively accuse these students of engaging in terrorism.
It is also likely to be replicated by other state governments and universities across the country. Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a letter one day after the Florida ban, urging universities to investigate their SJP chapters for violating the federal material support statutes. As Spencer Ackerman observes, the ADL (following Chancellor Rodrigues) has provided “not a shred of evidence for these incendiary, potentially life-ruining accusations.” Several U.S. Senators have piled on and called for material support-focused investigations to be taken against institutions of higher education that support SJP chapters and other pro-Palestine student groups. These Senators have even urged the Department of Homeland Security to deport foreign students engaged in pro-Palestine activism pursuant to existing immigration laws that prohibit “endors[ing] or espous[ing] terrorist activity.”
Nor is it likely that future bans will be limited to pro-Palestine organizations. Just like anti-BDS laws have been expanded to target the climate change and anti-gun movements, Florida’s SJP ban is a model that states and universities may use against student organizations engaged in other kinds of advocacy disfavored by the powers that be. This is particularly likely to occur in Republican states already targeting left-leaning causes.
For all these reasons, Florida’s ban should concern us all. It represents a troubling escalation in a long-term effort to quash the speech of pro-Palestine advocates, a trend that has already impacted other leftist causes. The Palestine issue is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to civil liberties repression in the United States. As with other anti-Palestinian laws, this latest development is unlikely to be cabined to Palestine and poses a serious threat to the civil liberties of all who support the rights of the marginalized.