In what was once very on brand, my adopted state of Florida has strong sunshine laws. In general terms, the public has extensive access to information about public institutions ranging from the minutes of university search committees to the doings of the governor.
As a professor at Florida A&M University, I am familiar with operating in the sunshine. Almost everything (with obvious exceptions for student grades and health records) we do is subject to public scrutiny. When I have chaired search committees, I must make them available to the public and keep careful records that the public can also access. While it is extra work, I support this on moral grounds: the public has a moral right to know what public money is being used for and what public employees and officials are doing. This also has the moral benefit of making misdeeds harder to conceal. For example, everyone in academics knows about “rigged” hiring in which the results of the search are already pre-determined by political considerations, friendships, or nepotism. While the sunshine laws do not make this impossible, it makes it more likely that hiring will be fair. Unfortunately, there has been a push to darken the sun. In academics, one recent example is that the hiring of university professors has been moved out of the sunshine and into the shadows. While there has been a bad faith attempt to argue that this is needed to attract “top talent”, its purpose is clearly to hide the truth from the public. After all, if this was all about top talent, then it should also apply to faculty hires. But more importantly, Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled legislature are busy putting out the sun.
As this is being written, the Florida legislature has filed dozens of bills to expand the already lengthy list of open government exceptions. While it does make sense to keep things like defense plans and intelligence operations secret, these bills do not seem to be aimed at protecting critical state secrets from foreign enemies. Rather, these bills seem aimed at expanding the ability of DeSantis and other politicians and officials to operate without fear of public scrutiny. Ironically, when people complain about law enforcement or the state violating the privacy of citizens, the right usually responds that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to worry about. One could, of course, turn their own rhetoric against them: if they have nothing to hide, they should not fear the sunshine. But they clearly have a lot to hide and hence fear the sunshine. Ironically, despite DeSantis claiming to have made Florida free and raging against “cancel culture”, he and his fellows are working hard to curtail freedom.
Because of his morally awful policies and actions, DeSantis has often been condemned and criticized. As a lover of freedom and a foe of cancel culture, his natural response has been to push to make it easier to bring defamation lawsuits against the media and even people who post on the internet about public officials and employees. Somewhat ironically, his proposal might run up against his own anti-woke campaign. For example, if he goes after “woke” public school teachers or public university professors, then it would seem they could bring a lawsuit against him for this defamation.
The proposed legislation also includes the presumption that anonymous statements in the news are false for the purpose of defamation lawsuits and accusations of racial, sexual or gender discrimination would be treated as intrinsically defamatory. While anonymous claims should be subject to careful assessment, they do have an important place in reporting. After all, people within organizations who are aware of misdeeds will tend to fear retaliation or other harm when they blow the whistle, hence the importance of anonymous statements. This proposal is clearly aimed at using fear of a lawsuit to silence criticism of the state.
DeSantis and many of his fellow Republicans have been accused of discrimination because of such things as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the (possibly illegal) transport of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, anti-trans laws, the “war on woke”, DeSantis’ attacks on diversity programs, and so on. This legislation would allow them to weaponize the courts to cancel their critics and take away their freedom of speech. Yes, it is pointless to point out the inconsistency between the right’s rhetoric about freedom and canceling and their actions. They, and their base, know that freedom is the freedom to say what they wish to say and the freedom to cancel those they dislike.
But one can take all the arguments and rhetoric the right uses against “cancel culture” and for “freedom” and apply it against their own proposed laws restricting freedom of expression. In fact, people should play back recordings of DeSantis and his fellows talking about “freedom” and raging against “cancel culture” in response to these proposed laws. It would at least make for a funny clip on YouTube.
This might be the last time I will be able to write anything critical of DeSantis. But it might also be the last time anyone can legally say mean things about me in the comments without risking a defamation law suit. After all, I am a public employee and thus would be protected by the law. Which is absurd—you should obviously have the right to criticize me or even say mean things. Because freedom.