Few complained of ‘woke’ classes at universities as DeSantis continues push

Only seven people reported violations of Florida’s Individual Freedom law, also called Stop Woke, while it was being enforced. All were dismissed as unfounded.
Students walk through the University of Florida campus on the last day of regular classes for the semester before finals testing week, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Gainesville.
Students walk through the University of Florida campus on the last day of regular classes for the semester before finals testing week, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Gainesville. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published April 25|Updated April 27

The way Gov. Ron DeSantis tells it, Florida’s public universities are bloated bureaucracies run by liberal elites who discriminate against conservative and white students while professors indoctrinate the rest with the “woke” idea that racism, sexism and oppression are baked into U.S. history and institutions.

“We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” DeSantis said when he introduced the Individual Freedom Act, also called the Stop Woke Act, which became law in 2022 and restricted campus programming on subjects like privilege, oppression and racism.

But in the 4½ months that the law was enforced at public universities — before it was blocked by a preliminary injunction last November — only seven people reported potential violations of the law across the 12 campuses, according to records obtained by the Miami Herald through public records requests. All of the complaints were dismissed as unfounded, records show.

Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy council of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the scarcity of complaints proves what critics have suspected all along — woke indoctrination is not a widespread concern.

“These are made-up issues by the governor to deflect and distract from the real issues that are facing Floridians,” Gross said. The ACLU sued Florida over the Individual Freedom law for allegedly violating constitutional protections on free speech and academic freedom at universities, ultimately resulting in a preliminary injunction last November.

Even unfounded complaints have a chilling effect and waste university resources, Gross said. Records show investigations into the seven complaints sometimes took up to a month to complete. In some cases, university compliance officers questioned the professors and department chairs before ultimately deciding to dismiss the complaint.

DeSantis and Florida Republicans are now advancing a higher education reform package that critics say doubles down on the law and expands state control over universities by giving political appointees direct oversight over curriculum and campus programming and more control over the hiring and firing of faculty. Despite the injunction, the two higher education bills currently moving through the House and Senate (HB 999 and SB 266) explicitly reference the Individual Freedom law, all but guaranteeing another round of costly, taxpayer-funded court appearances should either become law.

“It is encouraging to see the Legislature taking up this important topic and joining the conversation that the governor began with his legislative proposals for higher-education reform in Florida,” said the governor’s deputy press secretary, Jeremy Redfern.

Redfern said the governor looks forward to signing a final form of the proposed legislation. He did not respond to questions regarding the few Individual Freedom lawcomplaints last year or whether more had been made to the governor’s office that were not passed on to universities.

Between July 1 and Nov. 17, 2022, the Individual Freedom Act prohibited university training or instruction promoting or compelling students to believe one of eight concepts, including the idea that someone might be oppressed due solely to their race or sex, or anything that makes anyone feel guilt due to the past actions of someone with a shared identity.

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In a ruling granting the temporary injunction in November, Chief United States District Judge Mark Walker wrote that the law sought to give political appointees “unfettered authority to muzzle [Florida’s] professors in the name of ‘freedom’” — an effort he called “positively dystopian.” The injunction was recently upheld by an appeals court pending the outcomes of the lawsuits brought by the ACLU and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free-speech advocacy group focused on education, on behalf of several students and faculty members at universities across the state.

The Herald requested records from all 12 of Florida’s public universities related to potential violations of the Individual Freedom law and any subsequent investigations. Despite the law being enforceable for most of the 2022 summer and fall semesters, only three universities received complaints of potential violations. The nine others reported having no records of any complaints or investigations.

Records show the three complaints made to Miami-Dade’s Florida International University were all immediately closed. Two were anonymous complaints about courses that the university quickly determined could not have violated the law because the class in question wasn’t offered at the time the law was in effect.

The other was made by an FIU professor who complained that a cybersecurity training class had promoted the idea that one race or sex might be morally superior to another, which was illegal under the act. The university found no such themes in the training, and the professor did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment.

The remaining four complaints were divided equally between the University of Florida in Gainesville and the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Tipsters included an anonymous person who took issue with a UF class he or she claimed to have learned about over the internet, a woman who saw a blog post from the Young America’s Foundation, founded by the late conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., and two mothers of UNF students. One mother complained that a professor in the UNF sports management department was presenting “woke” opinions as fact. The other said a reading assignment in the elementary education program titled “So You Want to Talk About Race” made her daughter feel bad for being white.

In each case, sometimes after lengthy review processes, the university provosts found no violation, noting the subjects of race and identity had come up as part of class discussions, which was permitted under the law so long as professors had not endorsed or promoted certain perspectives.

“The mission of UNF is not now and has never been to tell our students what to think,” wrote Karen Cousins, associate vice provost at UNF, in a written response to one mother. “Instead, UNF strives to teach our students how to think critically about a range of issues and topics and form their own well-reasoned opinions.”

Despite finding no violation of the law, UNF administrators noted the reading assignment about race — which was already voluntary — would no longer be included in the class.

It’s unclear how similar complaints would be handled under the latest proposed legislation for higher education reform, which critics say goes a step further than the Individual Freedom lawin targeting curriculum.

Both the Senate and House bills would give a wide range of powers to the Board of Governors — the state university system’s governing body with the majority of members appointed by the governor — including the power to eliminate academic programs based on values that would also be determined by the board.

The bills would also have the board review university programming and general education courses for curriculum that violates the Individual Freedom law or that 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.”

Meera Sitharam, professor of computer science and mathematics at UF, said the proposed legislation is unconstitutional and already has faculty self-censoring to avoid winding up the subject of a lengthy investigation.

Sitharam — who is also a chief negotiator for the UF faculty union — said she is most concerned that the Senate bill would empower university presidents, handpicked by political appointees, to hire and fire faculty, regardless of tenure, based on criteria she said measures “obedience” rather than job performance or expertise.

“That’s where they really slid the knife in,” Sitharam said. The bill would also prevent faculty from appealing their removal, she said, in direct violation of the current faculty union contract.

In a statement to the Herald, Katie Betta, the Senate president’s deputy chief of staff for communications, said that Republican lawmakers are confident that the Senate bill and past laws are constitutional and will ultimately be upheld in court.

“The bill does not ban discussions,” Betta said in the statement about SB 266. “It authorizes the Board of Governors to provide guidance to universities on [their] curriculum, to protect taxpayer funds from discriminatory programs, and to specify that courses with certain content may not be appropriate as a general education course.”

Diversity, equity, inclusion bans provide backdoor

After the Individual Freedom law Act bogged down in legal challenges late last year, DeSantis quickly pivoted, introducing a new legislative proposal to ban university and college programs and activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion and to critical race theory — often referred to as DEI and CRT.

Under orders from the governor, universities scrambled to produce a list of related programs — search terms so broad and undefined one university data administrator described DeSantis’ request as “rather ominous” in an email to his peers.

Left on their own to interpret the terms, universities used terms like “race” and “diversity” to search the course catalog, producing a haphazard roster of programs and classes, including everything from homeless outreach programs to a course on classical dance, emails show.

While complicating administrative efforts to identify such programs, the broad, ill-defined terms have allowed Republicans to use the proposed diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory bans as a backdoor for reintroducing key elements of the Individual Freedom law and expanding state control of higher education during the 2023 legislative session.

“When they say critical race theory they mean the eight concepts in the Stop Woke Act. They’re using them as stand-ins,” said Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

In a February statement to the Herald, Bryan Griffin, press secretary for DeSantis, confirmed the governor’s office considers diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory to be synonymous with concepts banned under the Individual Freedom law.

“DEI, CRT, and other similar ideological agendas are racial harassment and discriminatory, and we propose that they are defined in this proposed legislation by tracking the definitions in Florida’s anti-discrimination laws, Stat. 1000.05(4)(a),” Griffin said, citing the specific Individual Freedom statute currently barred from enforcement at public universities.

A rewrite of SB 266 in mid-April removed all mentions of DEI and CRT after lawmakers worried federal funding and accreditation could be affected by such a sweeping ban. Betta, the spokesperson for Senate leadership, said the bill largely remained the same but “simply provides guidance on the harmful philosophy behind those titles.”

The references to the Individual Freedom statute remain in the text.

“Just removing the words is not fooling anyone,” said Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida. “What’s clear is the real purpose of this bill is to stop students and faculty from discussing the history of the United States.”

A subsequent revision of the amended bill reintroduced a reference to diversity, equity and inclusion and also seeks restrictions on programs or activities engaged in social and political activism.

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said that regardless of recent semantic changes made in committee, the Senate bill remains unconstitutional because it could be used to determine what concepts and ideas are taught in the classroom, which speakers can be brought to campus and which student organizations might be allowed to exist.

“That doesn’t pass muster in higher ed, where you’re dealing with adults and not minors, where faculty are not just mouthpieces for the state but have their own academic freedom,” Cohn said.

Should either of the 2023 bills be signed into law, Cohn said that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and other organizations would have to return to court to ensure the injunction was also applied to the new law. Ultimately, he warned that going to court for a second time over something that was already successfully blocked would come at huge cost to Florida taxpayers.

“If they insist on learning their lesson through litigation they should rename the bill ‘The FIRE and ACLU’s Legal Fees Act of 2023,’” Cohn said.

Complaints from the outside

As with school boards besieged by activists objecting to individual books, records show many who complained about “wokeness” in the university system were not students or faculty. On Sept. 6, 2022, a self-described “private citizen” named Tracey Coker reported a potential violation of the Individual Freedom law to the governor’s chief inspector general.

Coker had read a post on the website of Young America’s Foundation titled “Florida Professor Tells White Students They Must ‘Examine Their Privilege’” and was concerned that a summer class in the UF education department had focused on “systemic discrimination of various minority groups by the American education system,” according to the complaint obtained by the Herald. Coker did not respond to questions sent to the email listed in the complaint.

The governor’s office passed Coker’s complaint on to the university, which spent the next month investigating. Records show investigators reviewed screenshots from the online course — which included activities asking students to think about how their personal identity and community might shape the way they teach — and determined the instructor had not endorsed any banned concepts.

“Instead, the students are asked to consider and critically think about their positionality, which is not restricted to race, color, sex and national origin, and reach their own conclusions,” university administrators wrote in a close-out memo dated Oct. 5, 2022.

The online course also included a page where students were encouraged to “share resources that can help uplift Black humanity and promote anti-racist education.” The blog post described the page as riddled with links soliciting donations for Black Lives Matter, and arguing that “white students have avoided critical discussions of race their whole lives before college.”

Again the university noted the posted material was used for discussions, as was permitted under the law. And while everyone teaching in the department was reminded not to use their platforms to raise money for any cause, the existence of the link alone on a group page was not evidence the instructor had violated those rules, administrators wrote.

Ultimately, the university determined there were no violations of the law and, according to the close-out memo, investigators found “no evidence that white students were singled out and ‘told to examine their privilege’ as alleged in the title of the article.”

The instructor was a graduate student and no longer works at the university, the memo noted.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos and former Miami Herald investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.