‘Intellectual freedom’ law faces Constitutional challenge
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida
A faculty union, professors and students are challenging the constitutionality of a new Florida law that requires conducting surveys on state college and university campuses about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” and includes other changes that opponents contend violate First Amendment rights.
The United Faculty of Florida last Wednesday joined the lawsuit, which was filed last month in federal court in Tallahassee. The lawsuit argues, in part, that the measure (HB 233) was approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers “to target and chill certain viewpoints with which its proponents disagree.”
“While it may purport to protect and advance intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity on Florida’s public college and university campuses, its reality — and its intention — is the exact opposite,” the lawsuit said. “Without regard for the First Amendment, the law permits the state to collect the private political beliefs of students and compels faculty both to espouse and promote views they do not share and carefully consider whether and how to discuss views that they do.”
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the measure along almost straight party lines this spring, after similar measures failed to get approval in past years. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill in June.
“It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas. Unfortunately now, the norm is really, these are intellectually repressive environments,” DeSantis said at the time, adding that “students should not be shielded from ideas.”
An amended complaint filed last Wednesday lists the union, the nonprofit group March for Our Lives Action Fund, four professors, a university lecturer and four students as plaintiffs. The named defendants are Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and members of the state university system’s Board of Governors and the State Board of Education.
Under the law, state universities and colleges will be required to conduct annual assessments of the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” at the institutions. The law directs the Board of Governors and State Board of Education to each “select or create an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey to be used by each institution which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the college community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”
The law, which went into effect July 1, also said schools may not “shield” students and faculty members from “ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive.”
In addition, it opens the door to lawsuits based on violations of people’s “expressive rights” at the schools and allows students to record class lectures ”in connection with a complaint to the public institution of higher education where the recording was made, or as evidence in, or in preparation for, a criminal or civil proceeding.”
The lawsuit targets each of those major parts of the law and alleges violation of free-speech and equal-protection rights. As an example, it contends that the law does not ensure anonymity in the surveys and could result in negative consequences if state leaders don’t like the results.
“The survey provisions neither explain nor put any limitations on how the governor, Florida Legislature or boards might use the results of the survey,” the lawsuit said. “Remarks by Gov. DeSantis in support of HB 233 indicate that results will be used to cut funding from public colleges and universities if survey results suggest that a given school has not done enough to foster ‘intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.’”
Attorneys for the opponents also alleged that the law was ideologically driven.
“It was passed with the intent to suppress liberal and progressive views and associations on Florida’s public post-secondary campuses by creating a hostile environment for those views on virtually every level, up to and including sanctioning vindictive litigation and targeting them for harassment and budget cuts,” the lawsuit said.
The state has not filed a response to the lawsuit, which is assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker.
But as the House passed the measure in March, House sponsor Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, said completing the surveys would be voluntary for people on campuses.
“I’m not asking you to make a policy decision here, all I’m asking you to do is to allow us to ask the question, gather empirical data, to see if a future legislature may want to … use that data as the basis to make a policy decision,” Roach told House members.