Florida’s Education Bill is an Attempt to Ensure Intellectual Freedom on College Campuses. Could One Provision Make the Whole Thing Backfire?

By Published on July 2, 2021

Florida’s recent education bill was met with instant praise and criticism, with supporters alleging that it was necessary in defending First Amendment rights and opponents insisting that it was potentially dangerous.

“We are at great risk, as a nation and as a state on the lack of intellectual diversity that is on our university campuses,” said Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls during a press conference on June 22. “We have decided that one ideological standard will win the day, but the thing is we’re losing because we’re not having real conversations.”

“Such a survey creates opportunities for political manipulation and could have a chilling effect on intellectual and academic freedom,” a spokesperson for the Florida Education Association told The Washington Post. “Students already have the right to free speech on campus. All viewpoints can be expressed freely and openly.”

Many of the comments on both sides, however, exaggerated or diminished its central tenant. According to its text, it requires “each Florida College System institution to conduct an annual assessment of the intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at that institution.”

Further, it describes “intellectual freedom” and “viewpoint diversity” as “the exposure of students, faculty, and staff to, and the encouragement of their exploration of, a variety of ideological and political perspectives.”

Contrary to what is outlined in multiple reports, the bill does not mandate students or faculty to disclose their political beliefs to the state, but instead asks them whether they feel able to express them publicly, regardless of what they may be.

The bill also discusses universities’ funding, and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis even suggested during the press conference that the results of the survey could affect whether the state ultimately continues to provide money for them.

In a Reason opinion piece examining the new bill, Case Western University Law Professor Jonathan Adler argues that it is “perfectly appropriate” for the state to do so, saying that universities are in fact state institutions and that the funding is not conditioned on what political beliefs are dominant on college campuses, but whether people on them feel that they have the ability to express them freely.

“Indeed, such oversight is a good thing, provided it is just that — oversight, and not control,” Adler writes, calling it a “responsible measure” compared to other Republican efforts to ban Critical Race Theory and universities’ denying tenure to faculty with whom they may disagree.

Could One Under-the-Radar Provision Backfire?

One of the bill’s provisions that has escaped much of the media’s attention regards students’ right to record in academic classrooms. While it was included in the overall bill in an effort to increase transparency within academic settings, some worry that it may backfire and undermine the bill’s intentions. 

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the provisions could lead to more people getting attacked, and facing real-world consequences, for saying things in classrooms that some find controversial or offensive.

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“In a world in which anything lives on the internet forever and you want people to be able to in classrooms think through difficult ideas and … think through problems freely, they’re going to sometimes say things that they might not want published in The New York Times or on the world wide web for seven billion people to read,” Cohn said. “If you are concerned that there are some voices on college campuses that are chilled by a climate of political cohesion, then this is not going to help.”

Cohn added that instead of students and faculty feeling more protected and emboldened to speak freely, the provision would lead to greater fears that they would be reprimanded by their university or by the public for doing so, an assertion with which Adler also agreed.

“Who is going to be willing to express difficult and strongly disfavored views if it’s not just going to be in front of the 20 other people in their seminar, but for the entire world to see and judge?” Cohn asked. “If you’re asking a smaller seminar about any politically charged topic, and there’s a growing list of which topics are politically charged, then you run a risk of chilling a tremendous amount of speech, and the same speech which the survey is designed to measure.”

Diversity of Thought, or More Cancelation?

While Cohn declined to use the term “cancel culture,” noting how it has become overused and corrupted across the political spectrum, he told the DCNF that he worried about the bill’s recording provisions being abused at others’ expense.

“I think [the provision] will be used to intimidate people into silence and to try to destroy careers and maybe prevent them from taking off in the first place,” Cohn said. “And now you’ve encouraged people to do more of that ‘gotcha’ by getting the campus administration involved, because that’s what gives you the green light to record.”

He went on to describe an almost incentive-like system due to the widespread recording protections the bill adopts, despite Florida’s Republican legislature likely aiming to do the opposite.

And while Cohn said that the effects of the change would not be seen overnight, he warned that leaked audio, and faculty members inability to do anything about it, would lead to more outrage, doxing, life-altering consequences and fears of speaking or acting independently as a result.

“Florida has laid the groundwork for a tremendously chilling environment,” Cohn said. “I think over time [students and faculty will face consequences for stating controversial opinions] more and more and more, the way more of our politics is turning into ‘gotcha politics’ writ large.”

“I think they made a good faith but bad calculation about how this will help a cause that they care about,” he added. “If you’re concerned that there aren’t sufficient conservative voices in academia, encouraging [the recording of charged topics] is only going to make that problem worse.”


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