Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed legislation on Tuesday that requires public colleges to survey their level of “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity,” among other things. Faculty groups have criticized the new law as unnecessary and potentially chilling.
Florida’s more than three dozen public colleges and universities will have to determine “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and if community members “feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints” in the classroom and on campus. The law, which takes effect on July 1, does not describe the survey’s methodology but stipulates that it should be “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid.” It will be selected or created by the state university system’s Board of Governors and the state’s Board of Education.
Under the law, those boards are barred from limiting “access to” or the “observation of” ideas and opinions that students, faculty, and staff members “may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”
The legislation also allows college students to record lectures without their instructor’s consent, for educational purposes or in connection with a complaint against the institution or a criminal or civil proceeding. (A recording may not be published without the instructor’s permission.)
“It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas. Unfortunately, now the norm is really, these are more intellectually repressive environments,” DeSantis, a Republican, said at a Tuesday news conference, repeating a claim that Republican lawmakers and elected officials have voiced — and that many faculty members have scoffed at — for years. “You have orthodoxies that are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed. We don’t want that in Florida.”
The law does not say what, if anything, will happen in response to the survey results, which must be compiled and published by September 1 each year, starting in 2022. But DeSantis hinted at potential consequences for state institutions, saying that colleges should not be “hotbeds for stale ideology.” That’s “not worth tax dollars, and that’s not something that we’re going to be supporting going forward.”
State Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, told his fellow lawmakers in March that he was concerned that students were censoring their own viewpoints. A 2020 survey of nearly 20,000 undergraduates across the country found that about 60 percent had kept an opinion to themselves because they were afraid of how a professor, an administrator, or another student would react, The Chronicle previously reported. Survey results “could shape whatever action a university president may want to take or whatever action a future legislative body may want to take,” Roach said.
A ‘Solution in Search of a Problem’
Faculty organizations and Democratic state lawmakers have questioned the legislation’s intent and criticized its vagueness. Because colleges are prohibited from “shielding” offensive or unwelcome speech, does that mean that a professor “could be barred from enforcing respectful and appropriate classroom conduct by students?” asked the American Association of University Professors in its statement opposing the bill. The legislation’s language would rob administrators and faculty members of their discretion to control the academic environment, which is typically their right, State Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat, told fellow lawmakers in March.
The legislation seems like a “solution in search of a problem,” said Anita Levy, a senior program officer in the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance. The fear that the free exchange of ideas no longer occurs on campus is grossly exaggerated, she said.
It’s worrying that the survey will examine if students, faculty, and staff members “feel” free to express their opinions, said Karen Morian, president of United Faculty of Florida, a union that represents more than 20,000 instructors. How people feel does not always reflect reality.
There hasn’t been a rise in students filing grievances against faculty members or graduate assistants around the state, she said in an April interview. “That would be, to me, empirical evidence,” she said. “But we’re not seeing that.”
Instead, she said, faculty members “work really hard to maintain a civil discourse in a classroom, to have students feel safe that they can openly discuss ideas and develop points of view … All of that is part of our mandate.”
Now those ideals could be harder to achieve. If contingent faculty members, especially, think the Legislature is looking over their shoulder, they’re going to think “twice and thrice” about what they teach and how they teach it, Levy said.
Students might also be wary of what they share, wrote Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in March. Whether it’s appropriate for students to have the right to record their classes is a thorny question, he wrote, given the tension between transparency and maintaining an environment that does not impede speech. But the “mere existence of recordings in the classroom … has tremendous potential to chill anyone who might dare to express a controversial idea.”
And, Cohn wrote, “the bill does not define the scope of complaints to the institution that would qualify” as permitted reasons to record. Nor does it require that complaints be made in good faith.
“Will conservative students have to watch their words to avoid being reported to campus administrators?” he wrote. “Will progressive faculty have to do the same to avoid being subject to complaints?”
In a statement, the University of Florida said it looked forward to “widespread participation” in the survey. UF is “a marketplace of ideas where a wide variety of opinions are expressed and independent inquiry and vigorous academic deliberation are valued.
“We believe the survey will reflect that.”