Gov. Ron DeSantis and his government have enacted laws that outlaw a form of free speech. Among these laws are the Individual Freedom Act, also known as Florida’s Stop Woke Act (HB 7), and SB 266, which prohibits general college courses from “teaching 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.” These laws can make it illegal to discuss why there are systematic racial disparities in birth rates, occupations, income, wealth, health and mortality.
Backers of the bills assert this form of speech is banned because it may cause a person to feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress.” Consequently, these laws will “free” Floridians from having to attend workshops or take classes that discuss the causes and consequences of systematic racial disparities.
The critical question then becomes, how will DeSantis enforce these laws? That is, how can you police free speech? Diabolically, these laws deputize individuals to inform the appropriate authorities if, for some arbitrary reason, they felt “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” after being exposed to discussions about systemic racial disparities. As a result, these laws will create an army of collaborators/informants/sympathizers who will police our classrooms and corporations. In short, DeSantis has created an army of “feeling police” that will function to purge our corporations and schools from any discussion of systemic racial disparities.
In addition, these laws empower Florida’s government to punish corporations (for example, Disney) or schools that allegedly caused an individual to be “anguished.” These laws endow the government to fine corporations and to withhold support from Florida’s universities if they do not purge discussions of systemic racial disparities.
Thus, as a result of these laws, universities and corporations are now in continuous fear that an anguished “feeling police officer” is in their midst, an empowered sympathizer who will report them to the appropriate authorities for being politically incorrect. But, of course, this is Florida’s government intent. It will control free speech by creating fear within these institutions that a collaborator declares that she or he felt “anguished.” DeSantis wants everyone to be walking on eggshells waiting to be accused.
Note that these laws do not spell out the due process rights afforded to individuals, schools or corporations that have been “accused” by a “feeling police.” Problematically, how can an accused individual and their employer disprove that the collaborator subjectively felt “anguished” after being exposed to the idea that there are systemic racial disparities?
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Of course, these laws do not specify why someone would feel “anguished” or guilty just because they were exposed to the idea that there are systemic racial disparities. They also do not specify why only “anguished” feelings result in persecutions. It could be equally argued that only people who feel contentment/ joy when learning that there are racial disparities should be reported to the “feeling police.”
The latter should be a warning. Times change; the pendulum swings back. Beware, allowing governments to purge free speech is systemic oppression. It violates what it means to be a free citizen of the United States of America.
James Unnever is a research fellow at the University of Cincinnati Center for Communities & Justice. Unnever was rated in the top 1.5% among “criminology” researchers worldwide. He recently retired as a professor of criminology from the University of South Florida.