Florida Law Will Require Public Colleges to Investigate “Intellectual Freedom” and “Diversity of Views”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed a law that requires public colleges to assess their level of “intellectual freedom and diversity of viewpoints,” among other things. Groups of professors have criticized the new law as unnecessary and potentially frightening.

Florida’s more than three dozen public colleges and universities will need to determine “to what extent competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and whether community members “feel free to express their beliefs and views” in the classroom. and on campus. The law, which comes into force on July 1, does not describe the methodology of the survey but stipulates that it must be “objective, non-partisan and statistically valid”. It will be selected or created by the Board of Governors of the State University System and the State Board of Education.

Such councils are prohibited by law from limiting “access” or “observation” of ideas and opinions that students, faculty, and staff “may find uncomfortable, intrusive, obnoxious, or uncomfortable. offensive “.

The law also allows college students to record courses without their teacher’s consent, for educational purposes or as part of a complaint against the institution or in criminal or civil proceedings. (A recording cannot be published without the permission of the instructor.)

“Before, we thought that a college campus was a place where you were 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 press conference on Tuesday, repeating a claim that lawmakers and elected Republican officials have made – and that many have said. faculty members laughed at – for years. “You have orthodoxies that are promoted and other points of view are rejected 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 released by September 1 of each year, starting in 2022. But DeSantis has hinted at consequences. potential for state institutions, arguing that colleges should not be “hotbeds for an outdated ideology”. It “isn’t worth taxpayers’ money, and it’s not something we’re going to support in the future.”

State Representative Spencer Roach, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, told fellow lawmakers in March that he feared students would censor their own views. A 2020 survey of nearly 20,000 undergraduates across the country found that about 60% held an opinion to themselves because they were afraid of a professor’s reaction, to an administrator or another student. The Chronicle Previously reported. The results of the inquiry “could shape any action a college president might want to take or any action a future legislative body might want to take,” Roach said.

A “solution in search of a problem”

Faculty organizations and lawmakers in Democratic states have questioned the intent of the legislation and criticized its vagueness. Because colleges are prohibited from “protecting” offensive or intrusive speech, does this mean that a teacher “might be prevented from enforcing respectful and appropriate conduct in the classroom by students?” the American Association of University Teachers asked in its statement opposing the bill. The wording of the legislation would deprive administrators and faculty members of their discretion to control the university environment, which is generally their right, state representative Omari Hardy, a Democrat, told fellow lawmakers in March.

The legislation appears to be a “solution in search of a problem,” said Anita Levy, senior program manager in the AAUP Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance. The fear that the free exchange of ideas will no longer occur on campus is grossly exaggerated, she said.

It is concerning that the survey examines whether students, faculty and staff “feel” free to express their opinions, said Karen Morian, president of United Faculty of Florida, a union that represents more than 20,000 instructors. What people feel does not always reflect reality.

There has been no increase in the number of students filing grievances against faculty members or graduate assistants in the state, she said in an interview in April. “It would be, for me, empirical proof,” she said. “But we don’t see it.”

Instead, she said, faculty members “work very hard to maintain civil discourse in a classroom, so that students feel safe and can discuss ideas openly. and develop points of view… This is all part of our mandate ”.

Now those ideals might be harder to achieve. If casual faculty members, in particular, think the legislature is looking over their shoulder, they’re going to think “twice and thrice” about what they’re teaching and how they’re teaching it, Levy said.

Students may also be wary of what they share, wrote Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in March. Whether it is appropriate for students to have the right to record their lessons is a thorny question, he wrote, given the tension between transparency and maintaining an environment that does not preclude word. But the “mere existence of recordings in the classroom … has enormous potential to chill anyone who dares to express a controversial idea.”

And, Cohn wrote, “the bill does not define the scope of complaints to the institution that would be admissible” as grounds allowed to register. It also does not require that complaints be made in good faith.

“Will conservative students have to watch what they say to avoid being reported to campus administrators?” he wrote. “Will progressive teachers have to do the same to avoid being the subject of complaints?”

In a statement, the University of Florida said it looked forward to a “wide participation” in the investigation. UF is “a marketplace of ideas where a wide variety of opinions are expressed and where independent inquiry and vigorous academic deliberation are valued.

“We believe the poll will reflect this. “

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