A bad new Florida law is called the “Individual Freedom” or “Stop Woke” act. Both descriptions are wrong and misleading. When its backers, most prominently Gov. Ron DeSantis, claim that the law is merely prohibiting “discrimination,” they are engaging in pure Orwellian double-speak. What is prohibited is teaching ideas that the party currently in political control in Florida finds threatening.
Florida’s citizens should be deeply concerned about this restriction on academic freedom and freedom of speech. They should also worry that the State University System Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s public universities, has proposed regulations that work in lockstep with the law, House Bill 7.
The Catholic Church punished Galileo for publishing ideas counter to its official view. More recently, the descents of democracies into authoritarianism and fascism have prominently featured censorious treatment of scholars and educators. In line with these ominous precedents, the governor and his elected and appointed party officials seek to silence and punish educators and their institutions for teaching ideas that they don’t find convenient.
Don’t let the superficially narrow and neutral wording of the legislation and regulation fool you. First, while the discussion of such concepts is not prohibited, the legislation and regulation require that such discussion must be “objective” and not involve any endorsement. Quite apart from the fact that what ideas may and may not be advocated in the classroom is a matter for curricular and academic, rather than political, oversight, any educator knows that the effective discussion of an idea involves putting it in the best possible light by presenting the evidence and arguments in its favor; doing this, however, clearly risks accusations of a lack of “objectivity” and of endorsement. To be safe from such accusations, instructors can be expected to avoid even objective discussion of such concepts, and their institutions, which would suffer the penalties, will encourage them to do so.
Second, many of the “concepts” that are in fact being targeted are substantial, entirely respectable based on scholarly and other academic standards, and crucial to the aim of understanding and addressing genuine discriminatory practices. These include the idea that the history of the United States is inextricably linked with slavery, white supremacy and sexism; the idea that affirmative action may be justified to redress the injustices produced by this history; and the idea that abstract notions like “merit” and “neutrality” can be tools of oppression exploited by those with social and political power to disguise their own bias, prejudice and interest.
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Indeed, the legislation and regulations are anything but neutral. Consider the case of affirmative action. Whether or not affirmative action is morally and politically justifiable is a matter of ongoing political dispute. But HB 7 and the regulations prohibit only instruction that advocates the view that affirmative action is justifiable, and not the contrary view that affirmative action is necessarily unjust discrimination.
Similarly, the legislation and regulations would chill advocacy of views according to which the history of the United States is intrinsically bound up with slavery, white supremacy, and sexism, but neither prohibit nor chill advocacy of views that whitewash the stains of racism and sexism away. This is partisan, not neutral.
The legislation and regulation are in direct conflict with long espoused principles of academic freedom, are possibly unconstitutional, and insult the integrity and professional competence of educators as well as the intelligence of their students. But worse, this attempt to consolidate political power and squelch opposition by declaring just what ideas may or may not be espoused in education is un-American in the worst sense, just as McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities was un-American in the worst sense: It is a violation of the ideals that make the American democratic experiment worth the lives that have been lost fighting for it and deserving of its citizens’ allegiance. Authoritarianism is THE un-American notion. This legislation and the proposed regulations are obviously and dangerously authoritarian.
Richard Manning is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida, past president of the Florida Philosophical Association, and an officer of the University of South Florida Faculty Senate.