Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claims to stand for free speech. But he’s increasingly coming under criticism from First Amendment watchdogs for his efforts to crack down on extreme speech that runs against his personal support for Israel.
First, DeSantis said that the government should target student protestors here on student visas and deport them if they engage in expression that he dubs “supporting terrorism.” The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), an apolitical First Amendment watchdog organization, said that this step would be both unconstitutional and contrary to the spirit of free speech.
Now, DeSantis is reportedly directing state university administrators within Florida to “deactivate,” aka formally unrecognize, student group chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine in response to their radical activism after the barbaric terrorist attacks Hamas carried out on October 7. This is reportedly being done on the grounds that providing “material support” for a terrorist organization is a felony in Florida.
There’s just one problem. Whether it’s praising the Hamas terrorists as “resistance fighters” or chants like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” that some interpret as calls for genocide, the campus speech in question — while in some cases vile and worthy of criticism — is protected First Amendment speech. It does not constitute “material support for terrorism” and does not meet the extremely narrow exceptions to the First Amendment for imminent incitement of lawless action or true threats.
So, universities operated by the Florida state government cannot legally shut down student groups because they are bound by the First Amendment to respect the free speech rights of all students, no matter how radical their politics. You don’t have to take my word for it, that’s what the experts at FIRE are saying.
“The government cannot force public colleges to derecognize Students for Justice in Palestine chapters,” FIRE said in a statement provided to BASEDPolitics. “There’s no indication from the chancellor’s letter that any action from Florida’s Students for Justice in Palestine groups went beyond expression fully protected by the First Amendment. This directive is a dangerous—and unconstitutional—threat to free speech. If it goes unchallenged, no one’s political beliefs will be safe from government suppression.”
As always, we have to think about what happens when the shoe is on the other foot. Does DeSantis really want blue state governments to have the power to shut down right-wing student groups?
You either stand for free speech or you don’t. And right now, DeSantis is failing on this key issue.