Governor DeSantis signed a law recently that includes a requirement to survey public university faculty and students about their political views. Institutions can lose funding if the results do not satisfy the Republican dominated state legislature. As would be suspected, there are many concerns about this law, or so Republicans have suggested.
The survey results might not be anonymous and despite some reassurances there is nothing in the bill that prohibits faculty from being rewarded or punished for their professed beliefs. The treatment of Republicans such as Liz Cheney provide grounds for concern. After all, if Republicans will punish their own for deviating from their devotion to Trump and his election lies, then it would be odd if they showed restraint towards faculty who disagreed with their views.
As would be expected, this law is following the GOP playbook. First, it is claimed that there are benevolent intentions behind the law; Republicans claim the survey is aimed at determining “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and to assess if students “feel free to express beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.” Taking in isolation, these goals seem reasonable. After all, universities are supposed to be places of diverse ideas where students can express their views. Which is what they, in fact, are. This takes use to the second stock play.
Republicans have shown a marked tendency to pass laws to solve problems that do not exist in a meaningful way or are already adequately addressed by existing laws and practices. If universities were ruled by ideological dogmatism and students’ right of expression was being trampled, then action would be needed. One would think that if the “small government” Republicans were using the coercive power of the state, then there would be real problems calling for government action. But when reporters pressed DeSantis for evidence of the problem, the best he could do was offer the vague claim that he knows “a lot of parents” who are very worried about their children being indoctrinated in school. There are many problems with this justification.
One problem is that DeSantis failed to provide any examples of cases where schools indoctrinate students. This is because that is not being done. Another problem is that he does not even provide verifiable examples of concerned parents—surely if this is a large problem, then there would be parents willing to express their concerns publicly. But even if parents were worried, there is the question of whether this worry is justified. After all, another stock Republican tactic is to drum up fear and anger based on nothing—as they did with their lies about widespread election fraud. So, it would not be surprising that parents are worried about their children, since Republicans have been busy trying to scare them about this matter. While the President of the Florida Senate Wilton Simpson claimed that public institutions are “socialism factories” he did so, as one would expect, without evidence. Or even explaining what that would even mean. After all, if universities were doing what he claimed, then socialism would presumably be doing very well in this country. After all, most politicians, business leaders and professionals attend college. Ironically, if these college educated politicians were right about the power of professors to indoctrinate, they would probably be socialists and I would not be writing this piece now. Instead, I suppose, I might be writing a piece thanking the state legislature for being so dedicated to quality public education in Florida.
Another part of the law purports to be aimed at protecting free speech, something Republicans do not really care about. As noted above, the party has been crushing dissent within its ranks and has been busy passing laws restricting free expression, such as those aimed at “cancelling” critical race theory. The law specifically protects speech that “may be uncomfortable, disagreeable or offensive.” One concern is that speech is already legally protected at state schools, hence there is no clear need for this law. Some are, however, concerned that this law will make it easier for hate groups to hold events on campus. On the one hand, I do understand the concern about hate groups using this law to attempt to intimidate students. On the other hand, I do favor free expression within the usual limits of not harming people (you know, the classic no yelling “fire” in theaters that are not on fire thing). So, while I think that even offensive views should be freely expressed, I do worry about this being weaponized against students and faculty. Ironically, this aspect of the law shows once again that Republicans do not really give a damn about free expression as a general principle. After all, DeSantis has also been leading the charge in cancelling critical race theory. While a little legalize could make these things compatible, they do conflict as a matter of principle: banning critical race theory would go against the professed values of not restricting even offensive expression on campus. But, again, the Republicans generally do not care about principles. They seem to be aiming at allowing hateful speech on campus while working hard to keep students ignorant of why hateful speech is a bad thing.
A final, somewhat odd, part of the Republican playbook is to say out loud the quiet part. Barney Bishop, who lobbying for the bill, made it clear he was not very concerned about “intellectual diversity.” Rather, he pushed the bill as an effort to shore up what he thinks of as the country’s conservative Christian identity in the face of the youth who are not as on board with religious right-wing values. I do certainly respect that bit of honesty and it nicely explains the bill: it is a weapon aimed at higher education and a shield to protect the far right on campus.