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House Lawmakers Seek Survey On Whether 'Intellectual Freedom' Exists On University Campuses

Amid protestors stands a Milo supporter near the Union Green (2016).
Catherine Buckler

Are Florida’s public universities promoting intellectual freedom? Some state lawmakers don’t think so, and they want to survey schools on the issue. It’s part of a broader bill aimed at tweaking the way the schools are run and funded.

The measure requires the state university system governing board to do a yearly report on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at each of the 12 state schools. Students, faculty and administrators would participate. And while the bill calls on the surveys to be objective and non-partisan and have the ability to be compared across institutions. But the state's faculty union is wary. 

“If I refuse [to take the survey] will I be punished?" asked United Faculty of Florida's Matthew Leta. "Coerced speech is a violation of the first amendment. I shouldn’t be coerced to tell the state of Florida How I feel about certain matters…I can pretty well guarantee that a large slice of faculty and students won’t feel comfortable taking this survey and would refuse to do it. What would be the ramifications and what would be the penalty?”     

The union isn’t the only one skeptical of the survey.

"I really don’t like the survey and I think I need to explain why," says Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat. 

“I think the survey is a pre-determined assumption that our state university system is a collection of liberal institutions that are graduating young people with progressive ideals…and the survey also suggests there’s no intellectual diversity.”  

There's not, says Committee Chairman Cord Byrd. He cites a report from the self-described conservative Young American’s Foundation which identified four courses at the University of Florida it claims is aimed at indoctrinating students. And Byrd says students have raised complaints to him directly.

“Just last night I spoke to a Florida State University student who is a committed, devoted Christian and she says she doesn’t feel she can express her ideas freely on the campus of Florida State University which is a tragedy.”

Furthermore, when he was in college, Byrd clashed with one of his political science professors.

“He had a habit of calling students Nazi’s in class, if you disagreed with him he said you were on drugs. He would call students at home and harass them, so these are real concerns and they’ve only gotten worse.”

The issue has come up before, most recently in measures eliminating so-called “Free speech” zones on college campuses. Both the University of Florida and Florida State University have hosted controversial speakers. In 2017 UF hosted White Nationalist Richard Spencer after initially turning him down. Most of the 500 people in attendance were there to disrupt his speech. In 2016 former Brietbart Editor Milo Yiannopolous was at FSU and was greeted with protests.

The bill doesn’t specify who would create the survey and critics are leery over how the legislature would use the results. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Ray Rodriguez says he wants the survey to be unbiased, and has even recommended hiring a republican and democratic firm to create it. He says opposition against the survey is overblown.

“The question is this: Do our faculty feel free in the classroom to teach or are they being pressured by administration or faculty leadership to teach in one way or another? We don’t know the answer until we ask them….we heard earlier someone say this would threaten faculty. We’re in a system that provides tenure for our teachers. And to say a survey threatens them? It’s not right.”                  

While some professors do have tenure, younger ones or those just starting out, don’t.

The survey language is part of a broader proposal that further tweaks the state university system’s performance bonus structure, which many lawmakers  have criticized for advantaging larger schools at the expense of smaller ones. 

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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