Four years ago Florida Governor Ron DeSantis asked his state’s colleges and universities to adopt a free speech resolution akin to the “Chicago Statement.” At the time FIRE applauded the announcement, predicting a great benefit to students and faculty because of this robust endorsement of freedom of expression. Today, the higher education landscape in Florida is much different. The optimism generated by the state college and university system’s adoption of the Chicago Statement has dissipated because of actions taken by the state legislature and the governor’s office.
Last year, Gov. DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act” into law, regulating how instruction and/or training can be conducted in schools and in the workplace. FIRE challenged the act on the grounds that it unconstitutionally restricted the freedom of college students and faculty to discuss issues pertaining to race and gender. A federal court agreed, halting enforcement of key elements of the act impacting higher education and calling it “positively dystopian.”
During a time where the chilling effect on college campuses rivals that of the McCarthy era we need strong administrators who believe in freedom of expression and are willing to protect it even if that means angering the state government.
Then, earlier this year, House Bill 999 was introduced. It expands the Stop WOKE Act’s reach, introducing new ways of reviewing a faculty member’s tenure and eliminating majors and minors “in critical race theory, gender studies, or intersectionality or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems.” Around the same time HB 999 was introduced, administrators at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota demanded an art exhibition remove pieces displaying the words “diversity,” “inclusion,” “justice,” “equality,” and “reproductive rights.” This demand came shortly after Gov. DeSantis held a press conference at the State College of Florida to announce funding cuts to college and university diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.
What’s happening in Florida is part of a national trend. Twenty-eight states have adopted at least one measure that restricts the teaching of “divisive topics,” such as critical race theory, gender studies, or intersectionality. Sixteen of these states have enacted legislation that specifically targets CRT. But FIRE’s latest “Scholars Under Fire” report, released this week, suggests that the problem is particularly acute in Florida, where college administrators and politicians have become emboldened to restrict faculty expression.
The University of Florida is one of the most egregious offenders. From 2000-2022, FIRE documented 10 sanction attempts at the University of Florida, nine of which occurred after 2020. Of these 10 attempts, nine resulted in sanction — meaning the success rate of sanction attempts at UF is a galling 90%.
Administrators and politicians were the sources of seven of these recent sanction attempts, most of which involved prohibiting faculty from providing legal services.
For instance, in 2020, professors Teresa Jean Reid and Kenneth Nunn were barred by UF’s administrators from signing a “friend of the court” brief in a lawsuit challenging a Senate bill requiring felons to pay court-ordered costs before voting. Then, in 2021, UF’s administration barred three more professors from assisting plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn the state’s new law regarding voting. The administration contended that allowing the professors to testify could pose a conflict of interest with the state’s executive branch and create a conflict of interest for the university. UF administrators also warned professor Christopher Busey against using any language that could run afoul of legislation designed to ban CRT and threatened him with disciplinary action if he used the term “critical race” in his curriculum or program design.
The University of Central Florida is also no stranger to controversy — with a total of 13 sanction attempts targeting scholars since 2008. At least one sanction attempt has occurred at UCF every year since 2017, and nine have occurred since 2019. The overall success rate of sanction attempts at UCF is 77% (ten sanctions out of 13 attempts).
The University of Florida and the University of Central Florida have sanctioned scholars at the highest rates of any college or university where 7 or more sanctions occurred since 2000. This puts UF and UCF ahead of Yale (70%; 7 of 10), Columbia (64%; 9 of 14), the University of Michigan (64%; 7 of 11), Northwestern (64%; 7 of 11), Harvard (52%; 12 of 23), and the University of Pennsylvania (50%; 7 of 14). In particular, UF has made it clear that many of its recent decisions to censor faculty stem from not wanting to be at odds with the state’s executive branch. State College of Florida administrators were similarly motivated when they called for censoring artwork that featured words like “diversity,” “justice,” and “inclusion.”
All of this indicates that the adoption of the Chicago Statement across the state college and university system has had a minimal impact at best. Despite key aspects of the Stop WOKE Act being declared unconstitutional, college administrators in Florida still appear fearful of violating it.
Administrators can restore optimism by interpreting legislation as narrowly as possible and ignoring it when following it would be unconstitutional. They should also defend their faculty who face calls for sanction from politicians, the general public, students, other faculty members, alumni, or their administrative colleagues.
During a time where the chilling effect on college campuses rivals that of the McCarthy era we need strong administrators who believe in freedom of expression and are willing to protect it even if that means angering the state government. Ultimately however, government officials must stop policing what topics are open for discussion so our campuses can remain spaces dedicated to free inquiry.
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