By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
An open letter from the ACLU to 650 U.S. colleges promotes free speech for Palestinian students but doesn’t support Jewish students protesting the atrocities that Hamas terrorists inflicted on Israel Oct. 7, starting a war that continues unabated.
The letter resonates in Florida, where political action on college campuses is a flash point.
On Oct. 24, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration abruptly withdrew permission for a pro-Palestinian student group’s approved events. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which is active at state universities in Gainesville and Tampa, demonstrated against Israeli attacks on Gaza that have left massive civilian casualties and ignited a humanitarian crisis.
The letter is also a talking point for former board members of the American Civil Liberties Union affiliate in Florida. They say it underscores their legal claim that the national ACLU office in New York removed them for daring to question policy decrees like this one.
If national ACLU hadn’t replaced them with compliant loyalists, this previous board would have released a different message, they suggested.
“While I can’t predict how other board members would have voted, I’m damn certain we would not have gone as far as National did and placed our thumb on the scale to favor one side over the other,” said Michael Barfield, one of the ousted board member plaintiffs in a lawsuit pending in Sarasota circuit court.
FREE SPEECH OR HATE SPEECH?
On Oct. 24 Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System of Florida that oversees 12 public colleges, deactivated all SJP chapters because of “the National SJP’s support of terrorism.”
The national organization had distributed a messaging “toolkit” stating, in reference to Hamas, “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement,” Rodrigues explained.
The ACLU’s open letter calls his order an effort “to stifle free speech, free association, and academic freedom.” It urges U.S. educators to “reject [such] baseless calls to investigate or punish student groups for exercising their free speech rights.”
In Florida, where Jewish people constitute a vocal and newly inflamed minority, the letter isn’t likely to be popular. The state is home to an estimated 10,000 Palestinians and 670,000 Jews, mostly concentrated in South Florida.
The backdrop to the letter controversy is a spike in anti-Semitic acts that has law enforcement on high alert for possible violence. Nationwide incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault rose 388 percent, from 64 to 312, year over year for the period Oct. 7-23, according to a preliminary report by the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism.
In Parkland on Oct. 28, a group of teens reportedly yelled “Death to Jews!” as they rode bicycles past Congregation Kol Tikvah synagogue. “We immediately acted to activate the Florida Highway Patrol Quick Response Force,” DeSantis told Jewish community leaders at a meeting the next day in Davie.
ACLU VS. ACLU LAWSUIT
Former board members of the Florida affiliate say the open letter, signed by ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and three other national office staffers, follows a familiar pattern of top-down policy decisions.
Barfield is one of seven former board members who claim that when they balked at complying with those unilateral choices, the national office illegally removed them. He is a paralegal in Sarasota and a recent ACLU Florida president.
The Florida contingent say they clashed with staffers who abandoned the ACLU’s historic mission of defending free speech for all. Instead they embraced open resistance to the extremist MAGA movement and supported socially progressive, partisan causes such as student debt relief and climate change mitigation.
“The ACLU should not be viewed as a progressive organization,” said Miami attorney Jeanne Baker, another ex-board member who is suing the national office. She said partisanship makes the group vulnerable to mislabeling as “socialists” and just another politically biased faction.
“We are different. and the Florida board wants us to remain as independent of those partisan forces as we’ve always been in the past,” Baker said.
ACLU LETTER ‘ONE-SIDED’
The lawsuit her group filed three months ago asks a judge to restore the seven disaffected board members to their positions.
National ACLU argues that affiliates have no separate policy-making authority; its motion to dismiss the lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing next month.
Baker denounced both the ACLU’s open letter and Florida officials for censoring the Palestinian student group without investigating whether they were coordinating with Hamas or under its control. That would negate their right of free speech.
Rodrigues, the state university chancellor, simply declared the students were in league with a terrorist organization; therefore they had to be silenced.
“This violates due process and, on its face, the First Amendment,” said Baker.
At the same time, she criticized the ACLU letter. “It is very one-sided. There are Jewish advocacy groups that should have also been mentioned, underscoring the right of both groups to engage in even hot-headed rhetoric,” Baker said. Jewish and Palestinian students are in “the same First Amendment kettle.”
FLORIDA DIRECTOR TOUTS LETTER
Barfield said the policy choice behind the letter fails to acknowledge “the potential harm to important relationships within the Jewish community who have been steadfast supporters and donors to the ACLU.
“It seems to me the Jewish community should take all of this into thoughtful consideration when deciding whether they will support or donate to the ACLU,” he said.
The former board members say that ever since they were replaced, there’s no daylight between the Florida affiliate and the national ACLU office; the two speak in one carefully calibrated voice.
Howard Simon, a retired executive director of the Florida affiliate who’s back on an interim basis, quoted approvingly from the letter in an email interview with Florida Bulldog. He referred to the state and national offices as separate but complementary.
“The Florida and National organizations work closely on many projects,” he wrote. “It is a benefit of a national organization that we can rely on expertise in our national office – and around the country in our 54 affiliates.”
Simon said he was grateful for the legal research national ACLU attorneys provided for the letter. “I and our Florida ACLU affiliate communications team released the letter far and wide in Florida as soon as it was completed.”
ACLU SKIPS UNITY EVENT
South Florida religious leaders say they’re disappointed that their usual allies, including the ACLU, failed to express unmitigated outrage after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. The terrorists invaded Israel, slaughtered an estimated 1,400 people and took as hostages about 240 Israelis and foreign nationals. Only a handful have been released.
“The LGBTQ community, Black Lives Matter, the ACLU – all of them have abandoned Israel,” said Senior Pastor Mark Boykin of Church of All Nations in Boca Raton.
“When terrible things happen to other minorities we stand with them – Muslims, LGBTQ, George Floyd – and now not only are they not standing with us, they’re against us,” said Senior Rabbi Jeremy Barras of Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, the state’s biggest synagogue.
“We feel let down, disheartened, disillusioned. We’re just shocked that they would be willing to take the side of evil instead of good,” Barras said.
Temple Beth Am is one of more than two dozen faith-based and civic groups and businesses that sponsored a peaceful and apolitical“We Are United” march in downtown Miami Sunday afternoon. More than 100 marchers answered the call from organizer Mosaic Miami, formerly the Miami branch of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Miami Herald reported.
The ACLU of Florida wasn’t a sponsor of this second-annual rally. On Friday Simon, who lives in Gainesville, said he hadn’t heard about the march until Florida Bulldog asked whether anyone from his group would participate.
“I will look into the event further with our team,” he said. “Thank you for bringing it to our attention.”