Media Contact

For Immediate Release
Fri., May 3, 2024
Contact: Suzanne Trimel,

May 3, 2024

Unnecessary use of force against protesters and infringements on free speech rights are cited in letter to college presidents

MIAMI, FL – A coalition of seven Florida and national organizations that support and advocate for free speech delivered a letter to Florida college and university presidents today expressing concern over the “unnecessary use of force by law enforcement and encroachments on First Amendment rights” in response to largely peaceful student protests over the war in Gaza.

The letter characterized the response to protests by Florida higher education leaders as troubling and dangerous, citing the threats and physical actions already taken against students. 

Like campuses nationwide, Florida universities have seen protests and encampments calling on administrators to divest from Israel and opposing the war that has claimed approximately 34,000 lives in Gaza. Specifically, the organizations note that universities have failed to meet their constitutional obligations, chilling free expression on campus by proactively bringing law enforcement to threaten peaceful protesters. According to the letter, police have already arrested at least 35 students in Florida and have used or threatened to use force, such as pepper spray against peaceful protesters. The letter follows over 7,000 emails that have been sent to higher education administrators this week demanding an end to use of force against peaceful protesters. 

“Free expression, coupled with dissent and critical thinking, are fundamental pillars to higher education institutions. Especially during these moments, administrators must respond to student protests in a way that does not chill free speech,” said Katie Blankenship, director of PEN America Florida. “Peaceful protest, even when the protest veers into unlawful civil disobedience, must be met with proportional consequences that do not physically harm students or silence constitutionally protected speech. The responses from many of Florida’s universities thus far are unacceptable, infringing on First Amendment rights and disregarding the safety of students by bringing in law enforcement against peaceful protesters. We need leadership from college presidents now more than ever. This is an opportunity to create dialogue, not violence and deeper divides.”

The letter also points to concerns about unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, detailing the overly harsh consequences at the University of Florida threatening to terminate employment for faculty and staff or banish students from campus for three years for violating vague policies, such as “no disruption.” The letter states that the penalties outlined for these specific protests are disproportionate, and seem targeted at students and staff based on their beliefs. 

“Youth advocacy is a cherished political tradition in this country, and we have the voices of young people throughout American history to thank for advancing social causes we take for granted today,” said Cameron Driggers, executive director of Florida Youth Action Fund. “The events in Florida over the last few weeks remind us that the cost of bucking the grain in pursuit of justice is not a small one. Regardless of one’s opinion on the subject of these protests, the efforts of young Floridians to hold their universities, elected officials and other institutions to a higher standard should be met with celebration and good-faith discourse, not heavy-handed police violence. Youth Action Fund stands firmly behind Florida’s youth, and we will continue to fight for the recognition of their First Amendment rights.”

"As I turn my own tassle at the University of Florida's commencement ceremony this week, I am inspired by my fellow student organizers at my school and across the country,” said Maxx Fenning, executive director of PRISM FL. “As we approach the 54th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, which took the lives of four students protesting the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, I'm reminded of the long history of student protesters being deprived of their fundamental liberties to protest and assemble. As a youth and student-led organization, we are incensed by the brutalization of student protesters across our state and demand that their First Amendment rights be protected by university administration."

“University officials should be mindful of the history of excessive force that has been used against student demonstrations,” said Howard L. Simon, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida. “This is a dangerous confluence of events: protests addressing a deeply divisive issue among the American public and worldwide, a governor fueling hostility towards student demonstrators and calling for their expulsion and deportation, and armed police on campus who have already been authorized to use rubber bullets and tear gas. Armed police on campus, monitoring what have been so far in Florida peaceful student demonstrations, should be a last resort and a tactic to be avoided if at all possible.”

The coalition of organizations reminded higher education leaders that personal beliefs or opinions about the protests cannot dictate university responses. Instead, advocates urged the higher education leaders to take the opportunity to engage in dialogue, work to eradicate all anti-Muslim/Arab/Palestinian hate and atisemitism on campuses, and uphold “core values and fundamental liberties for all of Florida’s students, faculty, and campus communities and work diligently to turn great turmoil into opportunity for greater understanding.”