Ban on higher ed ‘political loyalty’ tests gets nod
By Ryan Dailey
News Service of Florida
A proposal that seeks to prevent Florida colleges and universities from requiring people to complete “political loyalty” tests began moving in the state House, as the bill’s sponsor pointed to what he called a “monoculture” on campuses.
The House Postsecondary Education & Workforce Subcommittee advanced the measure (HB 931) in a 12-5 vote along party lines on the opening day of the 2023 legislative session.
Under the bill, schools would not be allowed to require or “solicit a person to complete a political loyalty test as a condition of employment or admission into, or promotion within, such institution.”
Institutions also would be barred from giving people preferential treatment based on factors such as partisan, political or ideological beliefs.
The measure defines political loyalty tests, in part, as “compelling, requiring, or soliciting a person to identify commitment to or to make a statement of personal belief in” any “ideology or movement that promotes the differential treatment of a person” or group.
Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, questioned whether Florida’s colleges and universities currently have a requirement that people on campus be subjected to any kind of political loyalty tests.
Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican who sponsored the bill, pointed to things such as diversity, equity and inclusion statements.
A House staff analysis of the measure included an example of a DEI statement used by the University of Florida College of Medicine. The analysis also said the medical school incorporated diversity-related principles into its student ethics code.
“UFCOM (UF College of Medicine) includes ‘anti-racist’ principles into its student code of ethics, requiring all students to adopt these principles as a requirement of attending the institution,” the analysis said.
Roach, who said the bill is a continuation of efforts to address what he called “a monoculture on college campuses,” argued that most state universities use similar statements.
“I think the majority of our universities in Florida, probably 100 percent of them, have some kind of required test, which I would consider compelled speech, that would require or solicit a person to identify, make a commitment to, a statement of personal belief in support of these DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) sort of mission statements,” Roach told the panel.
The bill comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis spearheads a broader effort to target diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives in higher-education. The governor earlier this year appointed six conservative allies to the New College of Florida Board of Trustees — which led to the revamped board last month voting to scrap its Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence.
DeSantis’ administration also in January required the state’s colleges and universities to report how much money the institutions spend on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Schools in the university system, for example, reported collectively about $34.5 million in such expenditures.
Speaking to reporters after delivering his State of the State speech, the governor took aim at “ideology” in higher-education.
“We want the mission to not be about the social engineering, to not be about ideology. We want the mission to be about rigor, pursuit of truth, and we want students to have a foundation so they can think for themselves,” DeSantis said.
Another part of the House bill deals with institutions inviting speakers to campuses. The proposal would direct the state university system’s Board of Governors to create and fund an “Office of Public Policy Events.”
The office would be required to have satellite offices at each of the state’s 12 universities and would be tasked with organizing, publicizing and staging “a substantial number of debates, group forums, and individual lectures” on campuses. The events would have to “address, from multiple, divergent, and opposing perspectives, an extensive range of public policy issues widely discussed and debated in society at large.”
Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, asked why such changes are needed.
“Currently, I believe, student government and student activities are allowed to bring in speakers of diverse points of view,” Hinson said. “Why do we need to change that?”
“I would posit that they’re certainly allowed to, but that’s not happening to the extent that I think it should happen,” Roach replied.
The measure also would require that, “when necessary,” the newly created office provide per diem and travel reimbursement funds for speakers who are not within the state university community.
The bill approved last Monday also would push back the publishing date for required “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” surveys given to employees and students in the state’s higher-education system. Florida lawmakers mandated the surveys, now required to be published on Sept. 1, in legislation passed and signed by DeSantis in 2021. Under Roach’s proposal, the survey results would be published on Dec. 31, beginning in 2024.
A similar Senate bill (SB 958) has not received a committee hearing yet.