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Florida GOP pushes ‘intellectual diversity’ survey for colleges


TALLAHASSEE — In a push against so-called cancel culture that has been years in the making, the Republican majority in the Florida Legislature appears ready to pass legislation that would require public colleges and universities to survey students, faculty and staff about their beliefs and viewpoints.

The survey is part of a broader measure that would also bar university and college officials from limiting speech that “may be uncomfortable, disagreeable or offensive,” and would allow students to record lectures without consent to support a civil or criminal case against a higher-education institution.

The objective, according to the bill sponsors, is to protect the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on state campuses. But university faculty members worry the proposal, House Bill 233, is likely to send a chilling effect on their freedom of speech.

“I worry that this bill will force a fearful self-consciousness that is not as much about learning and debate as about appearances and playing into an outside audience,” said Cathy Boehme, a researcher with the Florida Education Association.

Such legislation could also pave the way for politicians to meddle in, monitor and regulate speech on campus based on university survey results, Democratic lawmakers charge.

“Don’t you think it is dangerous for us to have all the data on personal opinions of university faculty and students?” Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, asked during last week’s Senate floor session.

The answer was a resounding no from bill sponsor Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.

“I don’t think that it’s dangerous,” Rodrigues said. “Other states that have gone down this road have actually found it educational and beneficial. I think that it would be educational and beneficial in the state of Florida as well.”

Florida’s higher education institutions could soon find out if that is the case.

The bill is teed up for a vote in the Senate as early as Wednesday. It is expected to pass the Republican-dominated chamber on a party line vote — a trend that was seen in every single committee in which the bill was heard during the 2021 legislative session.

What happens when the survey is done?

In House and Senate committee discussions, one of the main concerns was not so much about the survey, but about what would be done with the survey’s results.

“Could this information potentially be used to punish or reward colleges or universities? Might faculty be promoted or fired because of their political beliefs?” Berman wondered last week.

Rodrigues says the answer is no.

But the survey language under the bill lacks details that back that assertion. It offers no assurances that the survey’s answers will be anonymous, and there is no clarity on who will use the data and for what purpose.

The bill says the state university system’s Board of Governors and the State Board of Education will be required to select or create an “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey,” presumably through the boards’ public procurement or rule-making process.

The Florida Department of Education, for example, offered Rodrigues language to add to the bill to ensure that the State Board of Education has rule-making authority to implement the survey requirements for colleges, according to emails obtained by the Herald/Times through a public records request.

Department officials also provided Rodrigues with “talking points” on how to sell the language in committee. Spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said Tuesday the department only offered “clarifying technical edits” to the bill and continues to evaluate the proposal as a whole as it moves through the process.

Despite being short in details, the bill says the survey should discern “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” in public university and college campuses. It also seeks to find whether students, faculty and staff “feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”

Rodrigues said the governing boards that oversee university and colleges would determine whether something needs to be done in response.

“If the results came back and showed that there was a lack of intellectual freedom, or lack of viewpoint diversity, my hope would be that the governing body of the institution would recognize and find that unacceptable, and announced what the plan is to address that,” Rodrigues said.

But Democrats worry that politics could come into play because members of those boards are packed with political appointees. Rodrigues tried to disabuse them of that notion, arguing that he does not share the sentiment that political appointees would abuse “their positions for their own political purpose.”

In the Florida House, bill sponsor Rep. Spencer Roach, argued future Legislatures could “use the data as the basis to make policy decisions.”

“I think that if those surveys point to consistent problems over a period of years, I think policy should evolve from that,” lobbyist Barney Bishop, a proponent of the measure, said in an interview Tuesday.

Bishop won’t name his clients other than to say he is lobbying the bill on behalf of Citizens for Responsible Spending, a “grassroots organization committed to ethics, the budget and good jobs.” He is the only lobbyist representing non-education groups that is pushing for the bill.

When asked why, he painted a dark, repressive picture.

“I think that those of us who have diverse thinking and look at both sides of the issue, see that the way the cards are stacked in the education system, is toward the left and toward the liberal ideology and also secularism — and those were not the values that our country was founded on,” Bishop said. “And those are the values that we need to get our country back to.”

Bishop said he “certainly hope[s]” the effort will go further — into the K-12 system.

“I think the problem isn’t just in higher ed,” Bishop said. “The truth of the matter is that kids are being indoctrinated from an early age.”

A new day in the GOP

Emboldened by gains in the state Senate and House and former President Donald Trump’s statewide victory in Florida, the intellectual survey bill gained traction this year, compared to past years when it had stalled in the Senate.

At the start of the legislative session in March, Rodrigues predicted his conservative bill would move faster this year than in previous years because “the state has shifted to the right.”

Rodrigues should know. When he was a former House member, he introduced the bill for several consecutive years. But it went nowhere in the Legislature.

Just a couple of years ago, former Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a powerful Republican senator, warned his colleagues that the so-called intellectual freedom survey would “keep coming up again.” He urged the Senate to block it from passing every time, calling the idea dangerous.

When asked about it, Senate President Wilton Simpson said the proposal gained traction this session because “with our new freshmen members, we have a different makeup of the Senate.” Some of those freshmen lawmakers are former members of the House, which is often regarded as the more conservative chamber.

What else is tucked in the bill?

Other than the provision that would create the so-called intellectual survey, the bill would also prevent colleges and universities from “shielding” students, faculty and staff from any kind of speech as “uncomfortable” or “offensive” as it may be.

Democrats worry the bill would make it easier for groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys to hold events on campus.

“The only thing that changes as a result of this is that no one would be able to say to an organization, you’re not welcome here because we don’t agree with your views,” Rodrigues argued.

Students would also be able to record classroom lectures without a professor’s consent for educational purposes or to use in preparation of a civil or criminal case against a higher-education institution. Rodrigues said in committee that students should be able to “shed a light” on wrongdoing in a classroom.

Professors, however, would have civil cause of action against any student — whether they are an adult or a minor — if they publish the recording for any other purpose.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage

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