Battle escalates over ‘diversity of view’ investigation at Florida public colleges

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Diving brief:

  • A union representing thousands of faculty at Florida’s public colleges invites students and employees to ignore a new survey aimed at assessing “intellectual freedom and diversity of viewpoints” on campus.
  • Florida United College said boycotting the voluntary survey would protect “individuals of all political beliefs.” The Republican-dominated state government began requiring public colleges to distribute the questionnaire under a law of 2021.
  • Union officials argued that the investigation would allow lawmakers to determine which campuses have strong liberal leanings and potentially punish those institutions. The union and other opponents filed a lawsuit to suspend administration of the investigation, which began Monday, but a federal judge on Friday allowed him to move forward.

Overview of the dive:

After a multi-year effort, Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature in April 2021 passed a law directing public institutions in the state to survey students and employees on issues such as their comfort level in expressing their opinions. on campus and whether the institutions accommodate both liberal and conservative beliefs.

Governor Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, signed the law in June 2021, at the time calling colleges “intellectually repressive environments”.

It’s a fairly common topic of discussion among conservatives – that colleges suppress their views and instead indoctrinate students with liberal values. Part of the bill passed last year also states that colleges cannot limit students’ and employees’ exposure to speech “that they may find uncomfortable, intrusive, distasteful or offensive.”

Public institutions must already provide broad free speech rights under the First Amendment.

The law also allows students to record instructor lectures for potential use in a civil or criminal case against their college.

Many critics, including United Faculty of Florida, have weighed in on the investigation, which they say could compromise free speech. The bill does not specify the use of the results of the survey, which must be published each year before September 1.

The union said in a statement Friday that the state government has no right to probe the thoughts, feelings and religious and political beliefs of anyone, including those on college campuses.

He suggested that the specificity of the survey’s demographic questions would lead to targeting faculty members, particularly those from minority groups.

The employees’ version of the investigation, a copy of which was included in court filings, asks them to provide their race, gender and political affiliation. He also asks employees if they think a tenure expectation is for faculty to adhere to a political viewpoint – and then he asks them if they think that viewpoint is liberal, conservative, or otherwise.

The student survey asks questions such as whether they feel intimidated to share ideas because their professors have different political views from theirs. He also asks students to rate their instructors as more conservative or liberal.

“This investigation is an attack on the basic rights of all Floridians, and it has no place in a state or society that claims to be free,” union president Andrew Gothard said. “The protections of the U.S. Constitution are too important to be set aside for political expediency. We urge all Floridians to join us in our fight against authoritarianism in all its forms: boycott this investigation.”

A spokesperson for DeSantis pointed to the federal judge’s decision not to prohibit the investigation.

“Bottom line – these are neutral investigations,” Bryan Griffin, the governor’s deputy press secretary, said in an email. “These surveys are designed to ensure that views are NOT suppressed in the classroom. This raises many questions about [the] ardent resistance to the transparency that surveys seek to promote.”

A representative from the Florida College System declined to comment. The Florida State University System did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

But Kathryn Hebda, chancellor of the Florida College System, said in court papers that the survey results “will provide a data set that will offer useful insight into how diverse perspectives and academic freedom work in real time on Florida campuses”.

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the investigation is ongoing. The plaintiffs in that case asked a federal judge to immediately block the administration of the investigation, which he refused to do. Reports suggest U.S. District Judge Mark Walker was skeptical during a court hearing on Friday about arguments that lawmakers will oppose colleges based on survey responses.

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