The bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this week calling for “intellectual diversity” on college campuses has attracted national attention, drawing criticism and support.
And with an election year drawing near, the debate surrounding the new law appears to have staying power.
“The reality is we’re very focused on diversity as policy matter — and that’s a good thing,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, told the state Board of Governors this week.
“We should have diverse universities and diverse faculty,” he said. “But one of the most important things about diversity is not the diversity of how we look but the diversity of how we think.”
Here are five things to know about the law, which takes effect July 1:
What fueled the bill
In recent years, the public debate over academic freedom and free speech on campus has been growing louder.
In 2015, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an opinion piece in The Atlantic that was later turned into a book, sparked debate across higher education circles with the idea that students were being treated as emotionally vulnerable.
Sprowls referenced it this week while addressing the Board of Governors as they met in St. Petersburg. He warned them against pandering to the “woke mob” and people on social media. The day before, Senate President Wilton Simpson called Florida universities “socialism factories.”
Also in 2015, the University of Chicago drafted a statement upholding the values of free speech. The following year, the university sent out a letter supporting academic freedom and rejecting the notion of “safe spaces and trigger warnings.”
A staff analysis of the Florida bill cited a 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement, which found that 64 percent of students surveyed believed their coursework “respected the expression of diverse ideas” and that 71 percent believed their schools “demonstrated a commitment to diversity.” But far fewer than that — 50 percent — believed their schools were supportive of different political ideas.
The same year, Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader who organized the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., planned a speech at the University of Florida. The university initially rejected his request, fearing his appearance would incite violence, but later backtracked and allowed him on the grounds of free speech. The school spent more than $500,000 on security.
Following the event, a series of free speech-on-campus bills were introduced in the Legislature. And in 2018, the Campus Free Expression Act became Florida law, essentially stipulating that an entire public campus should allow free speech and not limit it to outdoor areas.
The bill analysis also cites other surveys supporting the idea that too many people on college campuses feel like they need to self-censor, and that the burden is falling harder on those with conservative beliefs.
State Rep. Spencer Roach, the North Fort Myers Republican who sponsored the measure in the House, said in an interview he had heard that this was happening in Florida and introduced the bill as a means of collecting empirical evidence.
What the new law says
The law defines “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” as “the exposure of students, faculty, and staff to, and the encouragement of their exploration of, a variety of ideological and political perspectives.”
It says schools may not shield students, faculty or staff from free speech. And it directs the State Board of Education and the State University System’s Board of Governors to conduct an annual assessment of “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” for each school.
The practice of shielding students is defined this way: to “limit students’, faculty members’, staff members’ access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”
About the surveys
The required surveys must be “objective, nonpartisan and statistically valid” and consider “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented.” It also must address whether people at a school “feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”
The first results are expected to be released Sept. 1, 2022 — about two months before the Nov. 8 election.
Roach said the Legislature will not be involved in the surveys and each university will have a great degree of latitude in developing them. No one will be required to declare their political beliefs, he said.
“Best case scenario, these surveys come back great and say it’s a marketplace of ideas,” Roach said. “It could say we really don’t have that problem in Florida or it could say here’s what the scope of it is and the extent of it is.”
The results, he said, will be a tool for universities, the Board of Governors and future legislative bodies to take corrective action if needed.
About classroom recordings
The portion of the bill that generated most opposition among faculty members calls for the allowance of one-party recording in classes. Florida is one of 11 states that require all-party consent to record outside of public events.
While supporters of this provision argue that recording is being done anyway in classrooms, faculty worry it will have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to speak up.
The new law stipulates recording can be done only for personal use, filing a complaint to the university or as evidence in a criminal or civil case, and that action can be taken against violators. But faculty expressed concerns about intellectual property issues and not being able to control where things are posted.
When the bill was on the Senate floor, Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, questioned whether this provision could be setting up a young adult to unwittingly commit a felony. The provision was included under the bill’s “right to free speech activities.”
New protections for students
The law expands protections for student government members and student organizations. These provisions are the result of politically charged issues that bubbled up on Florida campuses during the last election cycle.
At the University of Florida, some student leaders pushed to oust a student body president with Republican ties after he invited Donald Trump Jr. to speak on campus. Also at UF, three conservative student organizations were suspended for violating COVID-19 guidelines.
At the University of South Florida, a left-leaning student organization was suspended for the same reason, and members of the group were arrested during an on-campus protest.
The student body president at Florida State University was reinstated last October after being removed for criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement, Reclaim the Block and the American Civil Liberties Union during remarks to members of a Catholic Student Union.
Roach, the state representative, argued that the case shows the need for policies that prevent students’ records from being marred. “We don’t want our students to be subjected to some sort of kangaroo court,” he said.
The newly signed bill modifies and codifies the State University System’s existing conduct regulations into state law.
It states that all schools will adopt a code of conduct that will “protect the rights of all students” and provide due process protections, including the right to a timely written notice within seven business days — extending the existing five-day period.
The notice must outline the allegations and specify what portions of the code of conduct have been violated. It also allows for students to be represented by an advocate or legal representative.
The law requires universities to provide the accused with a full list of witnesses and all known information they have regarding the allegation five business days in advance of a hearing — up from three days.
It states that students and organizations have the right “to a presumption that no violation occurred” and that schools have “the burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a violation has taken place.”