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‘Stop WOKE Act’ is no solution to orthodoxy. It’s censorship that will further entrench orthodoxy.

Students at Florida State University protest Gov. Ron DeSantis s push to defund DEI programs

Chasity Maynard / Tallahassee Democrat / USA TODAY NETWORK

Students and community members gather and march at Florida State University to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis' push to defund and close diversity, equity and inclusion programs on campuses.

In Florida, the “Stop WOKE Act” and its limitations on teaching in undergraduate and graduate institutions has some on the right wondering whether censorship is the path to free speech. 

It’s not. Censorship is a dead end. 

The argument — recently advanced in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal — that limiting the speech of some will foster the speech of others is a shibboleth long nurtured by some on the left to justify campus censorship. Each time a faculty member is accused of promoting racist or sexist views, a familiar refrain rings from the fainting couch: How can students expect to learn after hearing an idea they might find offensive? In order to make the classroom comfortable for students to share their own views, the argument goes, faculty must bite their tongues.

Free speech advocates have long — and correctly — responded that students should expect to encounter views, speakers, and faculty they find disdainful. Universities can prohibit discriminatory conduct by faculty, but airing a view is not the same thing as acting on it. 

Recently, however, some on the right have advanced censorship as not only the cause of campus orthodoxy, but also the solution to it. 

Drawing from efforts to curtail “critical race theory” in K-12 institutions, where the state has a freer hand to regulate teaching, the “Stop WOKE Act” reaches beyond primary and secondary schools and into college and university classrooms. It declares that any instruction suggesting approval of eight prohibited concepts is per se discrimination, even if nobody is offended. If a faculty member permits a guest speaker to endorse affirmative action (one of the prohibited concepts, as Florida’s lawyers conceded in federal court), or reads from an essay making that argument, they risk not only their job, but millions of dollars in annual state funding. 

Whatever ails higher education, more censorship is not the solution.

“Good,” answer some on the right, reasoning that campuses already choke under the orthodoxy of progressive echo chambers. 

But the Stop WOKE Act’s proponents are unwittingly arming their enemies. Granting campus censors (high or petty) expanded authority will only reinforce campus orthodoxy — or, at best, trade one orthodoxy for another. Officials given more authority will wield it against unpopular speech, which conservatives will be unsurprised to learn often means suppressing conservative-minded speakers. 

As FIRE has learned from long years of experience waging these battles, individual faculty members and students facing censorship have few allies inside or outside the ivory tower. For them, the First Amendment is the last line of defense. Without it, faculty can rely only on the good graces of colleagues or administrators when students, social media, or donors demand action from conflict-averse administrators. Faculty like Stuart Reges — whose resistance to university-scripted “land acknowledgments” led his public university to launch an investigation against him — rely on the First Amendment’s protection of faculty speech.

But that line of defense is precisely what the Stop WOKE Act’s proponents would surrender. It is true that the Supreme Court has not decided whether faculty academic speech falls within its holding, in Garcetti v. Ceballos, that government employees’ on-the-job speech is not protected by the First Amendment. 

Florida Capitol

FIRE calls on Florida public colleges to push back against unconstitutional ‘Stop WOKE Act’ provisions — and, if necessary, to ignore them

Press Release

But each of the four federal appellate courts to address the question — twice at the behest of conservative faculty — has reasoned that the First Amendment protects faculty against campus censors. Florida’s defense of the Stop WOKE Act relies on a novel and dangerous argument that faculty members are merely government mouthpieces. 

Proponents of this argument are playing with fire. When public furor and political grandstanding over “woke” views subside, the power to compel faculty to shut up and read from the government’s script will be wielded with zeal by administrators and lawmakers across the political spectrum. 

Universities are already compiling lists of words that should be avoided; conservatives can imagine what campus administrators (even in firmly red states), blue-state legislators, or a Democratic Congress might do with the authority to declare that the discussion of entire concepts constitutes unlawful “discrimination.” Indeed, Florida conceded that this power would allow authorities to declare American exceptionalism a discriminatory concept, because it suggests to students of color that America “doesn’t have a darker side that needs to be qualified.”  

Whatever ails higher education, more censorship is not the solution.

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