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State News

State Seeks To Nix A Challenge To Florida's 'Intellectual Freedom' Law

Several people are outside protesting in a crowd and some carry signs.
Chris O'Meara
/
AP
In this Oct. 19, 2017 photo, supporters and protesters clash after a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Florida Republicans contend the state's intellectual freedom law is designed to protect free speech at public universities and prevent campus leaders from shielding students from differing or offensive perspectives.

Saying plaintiffs have offered a “parade of horribles,” attorneys for the state want a federal judge to toss out a challenge to a new law that requires conducting surveys on Florida college and university campuses about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.”

In a 34-page motion filed last week, the state fired back at arguments by faculty members, students and groups that the law (HB 233), passed in April by the Republican-controlled Legislature, violates free-speech rights and is ideologically driven.

The motion said the plaintiffs’ allegations of a “violation of their free associational rights premised upon a parade of horribles arising from the provisions requiring colleges and universities to conduct surveys to measure intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity on their campuses are … unshackled from the text of HB 233.”

“Without knowing the content of any survey, how it will be administered, or how the results may be utilized in the future, plaintiffs foretell future injuries resulting from a hypothetical chain of contingencies that find no footing in the language of the statute they are challenging,” the motion said. “Of course, this is not how the constitutionality of a statute is determined.”

Also, the motion disputed assertions that the law could lead to regulating speech of faculty members.

“Quite simply, HB 233 does not dictate the subject matter of any syllabi or curriculum, nor cast a pall over any classroom,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “Instead HB 233 fosters the free exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of First Amendment protection.”

The United Faculty of Florida union, the nonprofit group March for Our Lives Action Fund, four professors, a university lecturer and four students filed the lawsuit, which names as defendants Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and members of the state university system’s Board of Governors and the State Board of Education. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who is based in Tallahassee, is handling the case.

Under the law, state universities and colleges will be required to conduct annual surveys. The law directs the Board of Governors and State Board of Education to each “select or create an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey to be used by each institution which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the college community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”

The law, which went into effect July 1, also said schools may not “shield” students and faculty members from “ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive.”

The lawsuit argues, in part, that the measure was approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers “to target and chill certain viewpoints with which its proponents disagree.”

“While it may purport to protect and advance intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity on Florida’s public college and university campuses, its reality --- and its intention --- is the exact opposite,” the lawsuit said. “Without regard for the First Amendment, the law permits the state to collect the private political beliefs of students and compels faculty both to espouse and promote views they do not share and carefully consider whether and how to discuss views that they do.”

Also, it contends that the surveys could lead to negative consequences if state leaders don’t like the results.

“It was passed with the intent to suppress liberal and progressive views and associations on Florida’s public post-secondary campuses by creating a hostile environment for those views on virtually every level, up to and including sanctioning vindictive litigation and targeting them for harassment and budget cuts,” the lawsuit said.

But the motion to dismiss said free speech will be bolstered by the part of the law that seeks to prevent attempts to “shield” people from ideas or opinions.

“HB 233 does not compel any one --- including plaintiffs --- to utter or publish a single word,” said the state’s attorneys from the GrayRobinson law firm. “But it does prevent the government from taking action to silence First Amendment-protected expressions that others may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive. The state may certainly choose to protect the freedom of expression through legislative efforts aligned with constitutional rights, understanding that leaders and issues may change but freedom of expression is perpetually essential and worthy of codification.”