“This is an outrage”: Advocate calls out GOP for “silencing” pro-Palestinian student groups

“This is the turning of Florida College campuses into propaganda mills for the government,” advocate warns

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published October 28, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump appears at a rally on the eve of the South Carolina primary on February 28, 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump appears at a rally on the eve of the South Carolina primary on February 28, 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Several prominent Republican presidential candidates in recent days have seized the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict as an opportunity to propose measures that would potentially infringe on the First Amendment – suggesting ideas like revoking student visas and deporting foreign nationals who express support for Palestinians or criticize Israel's military response.

Across American colleges and universities, students have organized large-scale protests and rallies calling for a ceasefire and supporting Palestinian freedom. But their efforts to promote liberation have largely been erroneously linked to endorsing Hamas.

Former President Donald Trump said earlier this month that if reelected, he would revoke student visas of “radical, anti-American and antisemitic foreigners” and would reinstate and expand his “Muslim ban,” a series of 2017 executive orders that banned travel from mostly Muslim countries and called for rigorous ideological screening of immigrants to the U.S., The New Republic reported.  

While pledging to significantly tighten U.S. immigration laws, Trump said: "If you want to abolish the state of Israel, you're disqualified, if you support Hamas or the ideology behind Hamas, you're disqualified, and if you're a communist, Marxist, or fascist, you are disqualified."

Several GOP presidential candidates have echoed similar sentiments – favoring the deportation of foreign students who are pro-Palestine or threatening to defund institutions that allow students to practice their freedom of speech. 

“Suppressing speech on an issue of such great public importance as the ongoing destruction of Gaza violates the very heart of what the First Amendment protects,” Justin Sadowsky, Council on American-Islamic Relations trial attorney, told Salon. “The First Amendment unequivocally extends to noncitizens here in this country, whether black, brown, or white. And part of the purpose of the student visa program is to showcase America’s freedom to the world. How can one aspire to be President of this country if one has contempt for the very Constitution the President swears to uphold?”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently said if he were elected president, he would cancel the visas of students who expressed support for Palestine.

“You don’t have a right to be here on a visa,” DeSantis said on The Guy Benson Show last week. “You don’t have a right to be studying in the United States.”

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley suggested on Friday the potential of reducing or attaching conditions to state funding for higher education after accusing some colleges and universities of promoting violence.

“We have got to start connecting their government funding with how they manage hate,” Haley said. “Because when you do that, you are threatening someone’s life. That’s not freedom of speech.”

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said that he would withhold Pell Grant funding from universities that fail to adequately condemn terrorism, The New York Times reported. When discussing student student protests, he said: “If any of those students on college campuses are foreign nationals on a visa, they should be sent back to their country.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., added her support to the call for deportation by co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The bill seeks a vote on the expulsion of “individuals who stand with and back Hamas.”

Rubio has urged the Biden administration to cancel the visas of foreign nationals supporting Hamas and announced that he would pursue legislation to restrict federal funding to college campuses that host protests supporting Palestinian liberation.

“I will introduce legislation to force them to act,” Rubio said.

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Similar discussions are also brewing on Capitol Hill, where 19 Republican lawmakers are calling for foreign students who are in the U.S. on temporary visas to have their visas revoked and be deported from the country.  Reps. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., both members of the House Anti-Woke Caucus, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, requesting the deportation of student and foreign exchange visa-holders who have “endorsed terrorist activity."

In Florida, some of these calls to ban pro-Palestine groups have resulted in action. The head of Florida’s State University System has ordered the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine to shut down on Wednesday over a “toolkit” published by the national organization.

State university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues has fixated on a section of the toolkit that "labeled the attack, now known as 'Operation Al-Aqsa Flood' as 'the resistance; and claimed that 'Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement,'” Politico reported.

By associating this document with SJP chapters in Florida, the state argues that these groups are violating a state law that criminalizes providing "knowing material support... to a designated foreign terrorist organization," and designates it as a felony, the outlet reported. 

The toolkit uses “offensive and anti-semitic” language, but none of it “amounts to what the statement has described as ‘material support’ for Hamas as a federally recognized terrorist organization,” Jeremy Young, the Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America, told Salon.  

“There's never ever a good reason to ban a student club on every campus in the state because of its viewpoints or statements made by its national organization, no matter how offensive those statements are,” Young said. “This is an outrage. It is a government stepping in and silencing students with whom it disagrees.”

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Students for Justice in Palestine describes itself as an organization that “seeks to empower, unify, and support student organizers as they push forward demands for Palestinian liberation & self-determination on their campuses. The organization has organized a number of demonstrations across college campuses.

Florida has been a "bad actor" when it comes to cracking down on student and faculty expressive rights, Alex Morey, an attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, told Salon. 

"This latest effort to derecognize student chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine is very clearly targeting disfavored speech," Morey said. "Florida seems to, either intentionally or unintentionally, misinterpret the law related to material provision of support to terrorism, which is unlawful, but only includes conduct supporting terrorism. Students speaking out about these issues, even if they express explicit support for groups like Hamas, without more, is 100% protected speech, and is lawful. The government should never be in the business of suppressing protected speech on a college campus. That idea is at the core of the First Amendment. The government doesn’t get to decide which words or ideas We The People May express or hear."

When the government starts determining which student speech is permissible on campus, it sets us on a “slippery slope,” Young explained. 

“This is the turning of Florida College campuses into propaganda mills for the government, and it is telling students who have dissenting views… that their views are not welcome in Florida colleges,” Young said.

One of the reasons that censorship is “so damaging” in open intellectual environments is because it generates a widespread chilling effect, he explained. This means that even students and student groups who are not involved in extreme statements or supportive of them will fear that their own speech might be censored by the state government in the future.

“I can look at this toolkit and say, ‘I think this is really extreme,’” Young said. “I think it's more extreme than what other student groups are saying. But ultimately, that's a judgment call that I'm making. It's a judgment call the state governor is making and we do not, in a democratic society, place those judgments in the hands of politicians or in the hands of the government. The judgments about what is or is not an extreme thing to say, or an offensive thing to say, is a social judgment to be made by individuals and by democratic society, not by our government.”

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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