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Democrats Decry 'Intellectual Freedom' Bill As Attempt To Curb Free Speech On College, University Campuses

aerial photo looking down street toward FSU
Erich Martin
A sky view of Florida State University's campus in Tallahassee, FL

Democrats are questioning the motives behind a long-running effort to survey college and university faculty, staff and students on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity. Republicans tout the bill as an effort to ensure students aren’t being shielded from unpopular views. The measure has cleared the House on a party line vote as Democrats argue the measure opens a Pandora’s Box of conflicts and confrontations.

For years, Republicans have floated the plan of an annual survey to see whether colleges and universities are more liberal or conservative. It’s predicated on the belief that the schools are indoctrinating students toward liberal views.

“Cancel Culture is an issue today because it’s suspected, the idea is advanced, that our college and universities are teaching liberal views. Certainly, we don’t want that. So we need a survey to prove what someone has decided already decided, exists," said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D- Windemere.

A Pew Research report issued in 2019 notes the views about higher education have become increasingly polarized, with more Republicans becoming dissatisfied and suspicious about the role colleges have in society—on everything from admission decisions to free speech. Bill Sponsor, Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, says his proposal is based on “anecdotal stories” he and others have heard about students being penalized for their views or even self-censoring.

"Certainly students have a right and any of us have a right… to withhold our views…but what we’re getting at is whether students are self-censoring because they believe they’re going to be penalized for sharing constitutionally-protected viewpoints, either through their grades or Through some other sort of punitive action," he said.

Roach acknowledges the surveys could be used for policy decisions down the line. The measure is a slippery one--for Democrats, college and university administrators and professors who are concerned about losing their rights to free speech if something they say is contested by a student. They’re also worried they won’t be able to control situations that could become volatile. During a previous committee hearing, Tallahassee Democratic Representative Ramon Alexander asked whether Florida A&M University, a predominately black school, could bar the KKK (a white supremacist group) from speaking on its campus. Roach’s bill would preclude the school from doing that. And during House Floor debate, Roach sidestepped the question

“Universities have spaces and auditoriums and they have a process--usually an online reservation system…we’re not saying that you have the liberty to march into a cafeteria or classroom in full stride and have a rally. That’s not what this is doing," he said.

The short answer: No, schools can't block controversial speakers from their campuses, though they could still place additional constraints on them. Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, questioned Roach repeatedly on whether supporters of the bill see the full potential for problems stemming from the legislation. Hardy points to circumstances where perpetrators of abuse could use the bill to play the victim. He uses the example of a student who distributes nude photos of another student, and claims it is an art project.

“By the way, that act would not be covered under our revenge porn statute.," said Hardy. "The offending student could recast the professor or faculty member’s attempt to gain control of the academic environment as an attempt to shield or limit other students from observing expressive material, however unwelcome. It also gives that student a cause of action. So now, the offender becomes the victim, and the person trying to protect the actual victim, is now in court.”

Roach says the bill is merely an optional survey—one designed to measure attitudes on campuses. The plan also allows students to record class lectures without the consent of other students or the professor. Those recordings can be used in complaints or for personal use—something Roach notes already happens, though not the complaint part. The proposal has cleared the house on a mostly party line vote. Its Senate companion is nearing a floor vote in that chamber after a similar vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee recently.

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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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