DeSantis’s Latest Stunt Bill Exploits the Limits of Academic Freedom, Experts Say

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 20: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to police officers in Staten Island on February 20, 2023 in New York City. DeSantis is expected by many to announce his candidacy for president i... NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 20: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to police officers in Staten Island on February 20, 2023 in New York City. DeSantis is expected by many to announce his candidacy for president in the coming weeks or months. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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The Florida statehouse launched another strike in Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “anti-woke” war with a new bill this week aiming to hand more control of school administration over to the governor and his political appointees.

House Bill 999, introduced on Tuesday by Rep. Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola), proposes to give boards of trustees nearly unanimous power over state university faculty hiring, allow professors’ tenure to be reevaluated “at any time,” remove critical race theory and gender studies from college curricula, and bar spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

The bill also digs in on DeSantis’ obsession with shutting down any educational instruction on race and systemic racism, stating that general education courses must not “suppress or distort” historical events, reference identity politics like critical race theory, or define U.S. history in ways that contradict “universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” Instead, the courses must “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization and include studies of this nation’s historical documents, including the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments thereto, and the Federalist Papers.”

The bill is just the latest tactic in DeSantis’s ongoing and manufactured war against “wokeness” on Florida’s education system, which he first embarked on by enacting the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, barring classroom discussions on race relations or gender identity, last year. His administration has since threatened teachers with felonies for letting students check out unapproved library books and rejected an AP African American Studies course for “lack[ing] educational merit.”

He also announced in late January plans to defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs in every public university in the state, weeks after his budget office required them to detail their spending on these programs.

It’s all seemingly part of the Republican governor’s ongoing effort to use his Republican-dominated state legislature to pass laws in the state to address non-existent issues, typically birthed out of various Fox News grievances. With each new anti-woke proposal, DeSantis makes headlines and sparks outrage, aiming to appeal to a very specific breed of Trump voter as he mulls a 2024 bid. 

But experts say that the scope of this latest bill stretches farther than his past assaults on the education system.

“We’ve seen educational censorship legislation in Florida and other states in the last couple of years, mostly aimed at classroom instruction,” Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of Free Expression and Education at PEN America, told TPM. “This bill goes far beyond that to censor entire university administrations. It’s basically a massive power grab by the governor and his fleet of political appointees.”

Decisions that are typically made with university presidents and boards of trustees in cooperation with faculty and staff – like setting up core curricula and deciding which departments should close, would be handed exclusively over to the board – members of which are appointed by the governor.

What Daniel Gordon, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author on academic freedom , finds “particularly striking” about the bill is that it doesn’t require trustees to consult university faculty before hiring new professors. “This contradicts a principle, well established by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), that [sic] professors in a given discipline have the expertise needed to select a new faculty member in the discipline,” he told TPM. “Math professors are the people best equipped to assess applications for a professorship in math!”

Experts also argue that the bill imperils academic freedom on college campuses, a principle DeSantis himself has claimed to support.

“It proposes a political litmus test for what can be taught in the classroom,” said Stanley Fish, a law professor at Florida International University and author of “Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution,” “whereas the essence of academic freedom is the freedom of teachers and researchers to pursue the academic task with whatever resources that they think will be helpful.”

But there may not be many resources to stop the bill in its tracks. According to Fish, the legal framework for academic freedom is “very underdeveloped,” and the Supreme Court hasn’t produced much jurisprudence on the topic at all. 

“I can’t think of any Supreme Court cases that actually pronounce academic freedom in an authoritative way,” he said. “So, the concept of academic freedom has almost no legal status whatsoever.”

The proposal was also introduced in a statehouse run predominantly by Republicans who paved the way for the Stop W.O.K.E. Act’s passage last year. 

“Any legal action would be slow; we’ve seen that in various cases involving educational censorship law,” Young said. “So it’s possible the law could be stayed, but it would be a long and involved process as it wound through the courts.”

Calling the bill “Orwellian,” Young warned that the legislation could create a “persistent regime and environment of fear” on college campuses.

“Everyone in the university, from the president to the faculty to the students to the staff, is going to understand that anything they say or do can result in immediate punishment, essentially by agents of the governor,” he said. “It’s the death knell for free expression at public colleges in Florida if it becomes law.”

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