Rights Groups Alarmed as ‘Unconstitutional’ Attack on Academic Freedom Heads to DeSantis’ Desk

“Prohibiting ideas in the name of freedom is not freedom at all,” said one critic of a bill that would outlaw teaching systemic racism in college courses. “It is censorship.”

By Brett Wilkins. Published 5-4-2023 by Common Dreams

Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at a “Unite & Win Rally” at Arizona Financial Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona.in 2022 Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/CC

Civil liberties defenders on Wednesday decried yet another bill passed by Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature attacking academic freedom, while calling on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to take the unlikely step of vetoing the measure.

S.B. 266 would require Florida’s Board of Education and its state university system’s board of governors to establish faculty committees tasked with reviewing and, if deemed necessary, rejecting or adjusting all general education courses.

Under the bill, these courses “may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics… or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) said that “this provision is flatly unconstitutional.”

“Bans on ideas in the collegiate setting are unconstitutional, illiberal, and shortsighted,” the group argued. “Prohibiting ideas in the name of freedom is not freedom at all. It is censorship.”

S.B. 266 also prohibits universities and colleges from funding activities, speakers, events, and clubs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Florida is one of 20 states where bills targeting DEI on college campuses have been introduced. Last week, Republican North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signed the nation’s first law prohibiting colleges from mandating DEI training.

In Florida, critics compared S.B. 266 to the Stop WOKE Act, a censorship law signed by DeSantis last year limiting how state university professors teach race, gender, and U.S. history. The legislation is widely viewed by progressives as part of the GOP-led war on critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework for understanding systemic racism in the United States. In March, a federal appeals court upheld a preliminary injunction against the law.

“Just as it was positively dystopian with the Stop WOKE Act, it remains unconscionable that the state Legislature has spent this much time and energy trying to prevent students and faculty from engaging in conversations with which legislators personally disagree,” ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jerry Edwards said in a statement.

“Instead of engaging in meaningful policymaking to improve Floridians’ lives, lawmakers have conjured a boogeyman out of thin air to expand the government’s reach in all corners of our state,” Edwards added. “Free speech does not end at the classroom door. The attack on free speech in education must end here. Gov. DeSantis must veto this unconstitutional bill.”

Leah Watson, senior staff attorney with the national ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, said that “S.B. 266 is part of a coordinated attack by partisan politicians on our right to learn about systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege in higher education. It serves only to undermine progress toward racial justice and must not be allowed to go into effect.”

“This attack on DEI will remove important support for students of color, erase their heritage from campuses and classrooms, and ultimately lead to increased racial bias,” Watson added.

NAACP Legal Defense Fund senior counsel Charles McLaurin warned that “if enacted, the S.B. 266 bill in Florida will threaten the quality of higher education inside and outside the classroom.”

“All educators and students are entitled to participate and contribute to a fair and high-quality educational experience that is grounded in basic values of accuracy, equity, and truth,” he added.

Also on Wednesday, the Florida Senate voted to expand the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law—a ban on “classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity”—through eighth grade. The original law signed by DeSantis last year was applicable in grades K-3.

Under the expanded law, high school teachers would be banned from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for students. The legislation also prohibits educators from addressing transgender students by their preferred pronouns.

S.B. 266 and the expanded Don’t Say Gay or Trans law—both of which DeSantis are expected to sign—come on top of a series of GOP-led Florida laws targeting K-12 education that have been condemned as academic censorship. These include a ban on an Advanced Placement African-American history course for high school students and a mandate that every book in classroom libraries be vetted by a state-trained “media specialist.”

On Wednesday evening, 14 people including members of Dream Defenders, Florida Rising, and Showing Up for Racial Justice were arrested after an hourslong occupation of DeSantis’ Tallahassee office to protest a wide range of policies and actions including attacks on education and academic freedom.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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