DeSantis’ ‘dystopian’ idea of free speech | Editorial
University professors aren’t mouthpieces for the state
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker speaking during 2016 graduation ceremonies at the Florida State University College of Law. [Florida State College of Law]
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker speaking during 2016 graduation ceremonies at the Florida State University College of Law. [Florida State College of Law] [ Florida State College of Law ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 22, 2022

The hypocrisy of Florida’s freedom governor was on display again last week after a federal judge halted enforcement of a state gag order at Florida’s colleges and universities. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District in Tallahassee called Florida’s new Stop WOKE Act, which restricts speech on college campuses in the name of promoting it, “positively dystopian.” The ruling was an unbridled rebuke to Florida’s increasingly authoritarian strain and a warning to everyone who cares about democracy.

The ruling came in two lawsuits — one filed by a University of South Florida student and professor and another led by Florida A&M law professor LeRoy Pernell — both alleging that the law illegally prevents frank discussions about the nation’s racial history in classrooms. (The same judge issued a ruling in August that blocked the law from applying to workplace training.) The legislation prohibits advancing concepts that make anyone feel “guilt, anguish or other psychological distress” related to race, color, national origin or sex because of actions “committed in the past,” and in college settings, the state has proposed rules tying compliance with the law to tenure reviews of faculty members.

Walker correctly lambasted the law for what it is — a ham-handed attempt by the state to crack down on protected speech and to chill university faculty from criticizing the government. In a 139-page order issuing a preliminary injunction against the law, Walker quoted George Orwell, and held that “the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom.’ ” Walker found that Florida lawmakers adopted the statute this year “to confront certain viewpoints that offend the powers that be.” And he blasted the state’s argument that this was a workplace, not a free speech, issue.

“(Defendants) argue that because university professors are public employees, they are simply the State’s mouthpieces in university classrooms,” Walker wrote. “Under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves,” adding that, “according to Defendants, so long as professors work for the State, they must all read from the same music.”

DeSantis’ office said it would appeal — no surprise there — and the State University System would not comment. University of Florida Provost Joe Glover said the school was suspending its investigation procedures for reported violations of the law, an appropriate response that other higher education institutions in Florida should follow.

This law, which took effect July 1, was always intended to drive a racial wedge among the electorate and to inflame conspiracies about what’s happening in Florida’s educational system. Walker contributed further with his ruling by considering the practical effect of these restrictions on campus; “instructors can no longer express approval of affirmative action as an idea worthy of merit,” he wrote. And he mused that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would not even be allowed to speak to a class of UF law students “about her own lived experience because it endorses affirmative action.”

The ruling should be a stinging reminder to DeSantis, and to the Legislature and university system that work in lockstep with him, that Floridians outside their bubble see through the political maneuvering behind the legislation. It’s another example of how the federal trial courts are but one of the few checks on a Republican administration whose hubris knows no bounds.

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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 Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.