Florida’s censorship agenda continues unabated under Governor Ron DeSantis as he takes further aim at free speech in higher education.
A presentation sent to faculty and staff by University of Florida President Kent Fuchs warned that approximately $100 million in performance funding is at risk for the institution if it does not abide by guidelines outlined by House Bill 7, a law signed by DeSantis known as the “Stop Woke Act”.
Similar to what other authoritarian leaders like Viktor Orbán have done to crush criticism and ideas they don’t like, the DeSantis-backed law severely restricts what professors and teachers are allowed to teach about race, gender, and history in their classrooms. Orban issued a decree removing accreditation for Hungarian gender studies degrees, prohibiting Hungarian universities from teaching the subject. The Orbánian-style censorship efforts in Florida are such a blatantly unconstitutional attack on the First Amendment that the free speech advocacy group FIRE made the case that school and university administrators might “refuse to enforce” it.”
This is not the first time that the University of Florida has been at the center of controversy regarding free speech issues.
After DeSantis signed a law restricting voting rights in 2021, three University of Florida professors were barred from assisting plaintiffs in a lawsuit against it. The decision was eventually reversed after a federal judge blocked the University of Florida from enforcing the policy and the university faced public pressure while being investigated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
In another incident late last year, administrators told professors to “steer clear of curricula that touch on race or anti-racism” to “not raise any issues that might jeopardize relationship” with the Florida state government. Fear of upsetting the DeSantis administration is so pervasive at the University that race-related references were edited out of course materials and researchers felt pressure to destroy COVID data, according to a report by a Faculty committee.
University of Florida educators appear ready to challenge this attack on their free speech. The faculty union president, Paul Ortiz, says he won’t allow himself to be intimated.
“It’s not going to alter a single one of my reading assignments on my syllabus … I don’t look at what the state or Tallahassee would prefer for me to design,” Ortiz said. “If I did that then my students would not be successful anymore.”
That’s exactly the type of attitude and courage we need to combat petty wannabe despots like Ron DeSantis. Under his authoritarian grip, the cowardly Florida Legislature has abdicated its authority and merely serves to rubber-stamp his proposals to ban conversations about LGBTQ issues in schools, restrict lessons about racism and history, gerrymander voting districts in his favor, suppress voting access, criminalize protests, and limit the power of local government to make decisions. As shown by his attacks on higher education institutions— DeSantis is not afraid to use the power of the state to intimidate institutions.
When the power of the state is used against citizens to suppress their rights and cement the power of tyrants, it is our civic duty to resist and to not comply.
Thomas Kennedy is an elected Democratic National Committee member representing Florida. He tweets from @tomaskenn.
is a reported opinion columnist and roving correspondent. He's an elected member of the Democratic National Committee from Florida and a Director of Sunshine Agenda Inc. a government transparency nonprofit organization.