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In the push against ‘indoctrination,’ DeSantis mandates surveys of Florida students’ beliefs

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After banning public schools from teaching “critical race theory” two weeks ago, Florida is reshaping civics lessons and addressing what its governor says parents worry about when they send their children to college — indoctrination.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) says he is concerned about the free flow of ideas on campus and whether higher education stifles free speech from conservatives. Under a law he signed Tuesday, which will take effect July 1, public universities must assess “viewpoint diversity” on campus each year through a survey developed by the State Board of Education, a requirement that a free-speech expert predicted as a model for other conservative-led states.

Although the Florida law does not address penalties for schools where the survey finds low levels of “intellectual freedom” and “viewpoint diversity,” DeSantis has hinted at the potential for budget cuts at universities that don’t pass muster.

The bill defines those two terms as the exposure to — and encouragement or exploration of — “a variety of ideological and political perspectives.”

“We want our universities to be focused on critical thinking and academic rigor. We do not want them as basically hotbeds for stale ideology,” DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday. “That’s not worth tax dollars and not something we’re going to be supporting moving forward.”

DeSantis’s office did not respond to a request for clarification of the governor’s comments.

Clay Calvert, director of the University of Florida’s Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, said the law raises a crucial question: Why a survey?

“I think the answer is that it is being mandated because it gives a conservative state legislative body a tool to withhold funding from a university that, based upon the survey results, seems to discriminate against conservative viewpoints,” he said in an interview.

The answer could also be more benign, Calvert said: Maybe the state is just gathering information.

Indiana’s Republican governor signed a similar bill last month that was written by its GOP-led legislature and set out to survey “perceptions of whether free speech and academic freedom are recognized and fostered by the state educational institution in a manner that welcomes expression of different opinions and ideologies.”

The Indiana measure also requires each public university to report what the institution is doing to protect First Amendment rights.

Public universities in the United States are already bound by the First Amendment and cannot discriminate against viewpoints. Schools cannot ban speakers for espousing white nationalist views, Calvert said. In 2017, the University of Florida tried to stopconservative activist Richard Spencer from giving a speech at the school months after he led neo-Nazis and fellow white nationalists through Charlottesville, at the beginning of aUnite the Right rally that turned deadly. The university president relented after a lawsuit challenged his blocking of the speech.

A federation of unions that serve teachers in Florida said the bill signed this week was somewhat moot and potentially dangerous.

“Such a survey creates opportunities for political manipulation and could have a chilling effect on intellectual and academic freedom,” the Florida Education Association said. “Students already have the right to free speech on campus. All viewpoints can be expressed freely and openly.”

Another critic accused DeSantis of manufacturing the viewpoint issue to fit his political agenda.

“Once again, Governor Ron DeSantis is focusing on nonexistent issues rather than confronting the real problems facing everyday Floridians following a deadly global pandemic and years of neglect from Republican leadership in our state,” said Josh Weierbach, executive director of the liberal organization Florida Watch.

The survey will consider the extent to which “competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and members of the college community “feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom,” according to the bill. Its results are required to be published annually.

The law also bans faculty members from “shielding” students from free speech.

“ ‘Shield’ means to limit students’, faculty members’, or staff members’ access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive,” the bill says.

Through the law, Florida can require that the survey be distributed, Calvert said, but the state cannot ensure that students take it. This could lead to participation bias in which students who think their viewpoints have been discriminated against are more likely to participate.

Calvert compared the survey to the course evaluations some universities ask students to fill out at the end of a term.

“So if you did fine in the class, you got a B-plus or an A-minus and you liked it but you didn’t really care too much, you probably didn’t fill one out,” he said. “But if you got a C and you felt somehow aggrieved, a person might be more likely to then fill out the survey and take it out on the professor, saying the class was somehow against them.”

Calvert also said the survey could chill speech on campus and make professors second-guess what they say in class.

Professors probably will start to “play it down the middle,” he said, and not address controversial viewpoints for fear of being accused of espousing them.


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