Florida’s college survey law is short on details, long on partisan politics | Editorial
Florida searches for intellectual “diversity” on campus among students and staff.
The Florida State University campus in Tallahassee.
The Florida State University campus in Tallahassee. [ BILL LAX | Bill Lax/FSU Photo Lab ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published July 6, 2021

There is nothing more essential to the college experience than the free exchange of ideas. Diversity of opinion is critical; it strengthens the learning and research experience while expanding public support for higher education. But a new state law requiring Florida’s colleges and universities to assess their “viewpoint diversity” could open a new front in America’s culture wars. University administrators and state officials need to proceed carefully to avoid harming these valuable institutions.

The bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in June calls for “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.” Toward that end, it encourages students and staff to be exposed to and explore “a variety of ideological and political perspectives.” It also requires the state’s colleges and universities to conduct an annual survey examining how well “competing ideas and perspectives are presented,” and how freely students and staff feel expressing “their beliefs and viewpoints on campus.” The first results are required to be published on Sept. 1, 2022, only weeks before early voting for the November elections.

The measure comes after complaints from state Republican leaders that those with conservative beliefs are being forced to self-censor their views on college campuses. State Rep. Spencer Roach, the North Fort Myers Republican who sponsored the measure in the House, told the Tampa Bay Times he had heard this was happening in Florida and introduced the bill as a means of collecting evidence.

The required surveys must be “objective, nonpartisan and statistically valid,” according to the law. But the measure provides no criteria for the survey, or rules for students, faculty and staff to participate, or even a requirement that the schools follow uniform polling procedures, for the sake of providing an apples-to-apples comparison between institutions. The law also doesn’t prescribe what colleges and universities, state education officials and lawmakers are supposed to do with the survey results.

While Americans on both sides of the partisan aisle have expressed dissatisfaction with the higher education system, Republicans have increasingly complained that professors are bringing their views into the classroom. A Pew Research Survey in 2018 found that Republicans far outpaced Democrats in blaming professors as a major reason for the failures they saw in higher education. That echoed a similar Pew finding in 2017, which showed that Democrats, by contrast, had a broadly positive view of college professors. Another Pew survey, in 2019, seemed to indicate the partisan gap was widening, with Republicans much more skeptical than Democrats on whether colleges and universities were open to different points of view. Republicans even expressed doubts that K-12 public schools were open to a range of opinions and viewpoints.

These surveys seem intended to promote a political narrative. As a legal tool, they do nothing to protect speech the First Amendment doesn’t do already. The real test will come when colleges craft and conduct the surveys. Whether they become a springboard for chilling speech remains to be seen.

But nobody should expect these surveys to paint a very different picture of the partisan lens that already exists with higher education. Colleges and universities should ensure the effort promotes diversity and inclusion, and lawmakers should tread carefully with a new statutory requirement that comes dangerously close to policing thought.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.