Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ law punishing student ‘indoctrination’ is a ‘disgraceful’ assault on academic freedom, free speech experts warn

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a COVID-19 testing site, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, outside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. First responders and people over 65 years-old began receiving the COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday during a trial run of the site which will open to seniors at a later date.

  • DeSantis signed a law mandating public universities survey students and faculty on their political beliefs.
  • Scholars and advocates said the law is “disgraceful” and could lead to bizarre classroom instruction.
  • For instance, “intellectual diversity” could be used to mandate professors teach creationism alongside the science of evolution.
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Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a new bill into law on Tuesday that requires the state’s public universities to survey faculty, students, and staff on their political beliefs to measure “viewpoint diversity” and fight student “indoctrination.”

The Republican-passed law aims to determine “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” in classrooms and whether students “feel free to express beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom,” according to the bill’s text. And it mandates that students “be shown diverse ideas and opinions, including those that they may disagree with or find uncomfortable.”

It remains unclear how the state will use the information it gathers, but free speech scholars and advocates are concerned DeSantis and the legislature will retaliate against universities and their faculty for political reasons. The governor, who’s built a national profile with his Trumpian politics, suggested on Wednesday that the state will cut funding for schools it deems “hotbeds for stale ideology.”

First Amendment experts say the Florida law is unconstitutional and will do the opposite of what it purports to. Instead of promoting free speech, they fear it will both suppress certain viewpoints and undermine academic freedom, as well as force professors to waste time introducing discredited science and theories. And the effort comes amid DeSantis’ broader crackdown on free speech, including Black Lives Matter protests and the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.

Undermining free speech and academic freedom

Critics of Florida’s new law fear DeSantis and the GOP-run state legislature will intimidate universities and chill speech on campus. Micah Kubic, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the law is unconstitutional because there is no “overwhelmingly compelling government interest” to warrant suppressing the speech of professors and students.

“This is a really disgraceful move that undermines the First Amendment, that will chill speech on campuses, and I think that trying to brand it as somehow a defense of free speech is an ultimate ‘up is down’ moment,” Kubic told Insider. “Everything about it is designed to chill and intimidate, not to actually cultivate an environment of free speech or dissent.”

He added, “Ron DeSantis disapproving of what you think is not a compelling government interest.”

The ACLU is waiting for more clarity on what the survey will look like and how it will be implemented before making decisions about its legal strategy. Kubic said “all options remain on the table.”

While all public universities are already required to respect the First Amendment, the values of freedom of speech are inconsistent with academic freedom, said Robert Post, a constitutional law professor at Yale and former dean of the school. Professors differentiate between good and bad ideas, and truth and falsehoods, in ways that are inconsistent with promoting “intellectual diversity.” While the government must protect all speech equally, universities regularly grant tenure to faculty, grade students, and award grants – all actions that involve discriminating between ideas.

“We train students to become competent in their disciplines and that, of course, means it’s not a marketplace of ideas, it’s an educational ground for the creation of competence,” Post told Insider. “All ideas are not equal, if you care about competence.”

Requiring “intellectual diversity” in the classroom is akin to mandating a discredited theory like creationism be taught alongside the established science of evolution, Post said. Political science departments shouldn’t hire liberal and conservative professors, they should hire good political scientists, regardless of their personal political beliefs. He fears that the law will empower politicians “who think politics should override truth” and compared the phenomenon to Joseph Stalin’s partnership with the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, who pushed Marxist-approved agricultural pseudoscience that helped drive the country’s deadly famines.

Florida protest
Black Lives Matter protest in Miami, Florida on June 7, 2020.

A broader effort to suppress speech

The new law is one of a series of measures DeSantis and his GOP allies have taken to crack down on free speech and regulate education. This spring, DeSantis signed a law that dramatically heightened criminal punishments for protesters. Last week, he preemptively barred Florida schools from teaching about systemic racism and the history of slavery through the lens of critical race theory and The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project.”

There are a slew of reasons why classrooms are increasingly a battleground for political culture wars. Education polarization in electoral politics has deepened in recent years. College-educated voters were key to President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory and the gap between how college-educated and non-college-educated Americans vote widened last year and is particularly pronounced among white voters. In the 2020 election, Biden won 54% of college-educated white voters, while former President Donald Trump won 63% of non-college white educated voters, according to an analysis of the election results by the Democratic data firm Catalist.

As the country becomes more educated, this widening polarization could present an ongoing challenge for the Republican party across the country. Asserting more control over what is taught in public schools might be one way for the GOP to reverse this trend.

But Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said this particular effort may well backfire. He thinks faculty and students alike will largely reject the survey and simply refuse to participate in the state’s efforts. The media headlines are the point, he argued, and the GOP’s effort will fail on a practical level.

“Professors are going to boycott it purely because this is a state messing with the education of young people,” he told Insider. “I just know as a dean, trying to get my faculty to respond to any survey – you know, professors are very busy people and they also do not take to authority well.”

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