Experts alarmed over Florida GOP bill that would “result in a regime of censorship" at colleges

Republican legislation threatens to turn Ron DeSantis’ higher education vision into law

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published February 27, 2023 3:31PM (EST)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A new Florida Republican education bill would turn Gov. Ron DeSantis' vision for higher education into reality by limiting diversity efforts, removing course offerings in subjects like Critical Race Theory and Gender Studies and forcing state colleges and universities to shut down diversity programs.

House Bill 999 filed by Representative Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, would prohibit public colleges from funding any projects that "espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric" and also proposes that the board of trustees remain in charge of all faculty hiring. 

"Each constituent university may initiate a post-tenure review of a faculty member at any time with cause," the bill says. 

It also calls for the rewriting of university mission statements and gives the board the power to review and provide revisions for university statements. 

Critics have called the bill an attack on higher education and described it as a tool to appease the national conservative base.

DeSantis and Andrade are making a scapegoat of universities and DEI initiatives by using them as an opportunity to expand power, authority and political points, said Jeremy Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.

"In short, it is a political power grab over the way universities are structured and function, and will result in a regime of censorship," Young told Salon.

In early January, DeSantis' budget office required all universities to provide detailed information on what they spend on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. By the end of the month, he held a news conference announcing changes that reflect those proposed in Andrade's bill.

"In Florida, we will build off of our higher education reforms by aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition, eliminating politicized bureaucracies like DEI, increasing the amount of research dollars for programs that will feed key industries with talented Florida students, and empowering presidents and boards of trustees to recruit and hire new faculty, including by dedicating record resources for faculty salaries," DeSantis said.

The bill also says that state universities are "prohibited from using diversity, equity, and inclusion statements" and rhetoric as part of their hiring process, including as part of applications for employment, promotion and tenure.

Not only does the bill limit majors and minors in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, but also proposes the exclusion of these subjects being taught as part of any course offering. 

Earlier this month, the National Black Justice Coalition along with dozens of other civil rights groups sent a letter to the College Board CEO David Coleman, calling on him to stand up to DeSantis and his Department of Education's effort to censor the newly created AP African American Studies course.

The letter demanded that if Coleman couldn't challenge DeSantis' political attacks on children's education, then he should step down and allow for new leadership that does not cave to such pressure. 

"Our very young democracy could very quickly resemble totalitarian regimes that we've critiqued over time," NBJC executive director David Johns told Salon. "The privileges that so many of us take for granted, as Americans, to enjoy the freedom of speech and the freedom of debate, ability to gather in public spaces and protest – each of those things are right now being attacked in the state of Florida."

Referring to DeSantis as a "failed former history teacher," Johns added that DeSantis is aware of what he is doing.

The legislation that the governor is introducing is also causing people to respond preemptively, even before it has been codified. 

"We saw a lot of this with regard to the 'Don't Say Gay,'" Johns said. "Librarians and media specialists were pulling all the books out of the library because they didn't want to trip over intentionally vague laws."

If this education bill turns into law, its implications will have a ripple effect throughout the country, and especially negatively impact Black children, Johns said. 

"We already are sending signals to children that we don't value them, but suicide rates for Black youth have doubled in the last two decades," he said.

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On top of this, it will also result in a "brain drain of Florida faculty leaving the state," Young added. "A law this draconian" can also result in Florida institutions losing their accreditation status as their commitments to diversity and to independence from political oversight are undermined.

"Loss of accreditation status would result in the loss of all federal funding for student financial aid, which would essentially bankrupt the schools," Young said. "Other states would see these negative consequences and refrain from introducing or passing a bill of this type, but there is certainly the possibility for copycat legislation in other states as well."

After Florida's ban on a proposed Advanced Placement course on African American studies, the departments of education in at least four Republican-led states have questioned whether the course is in compliance with laws that restrict lessons about race and racism, according to Education Week.

Arkansas, North Dakota, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, are among the 18 states that have passed "anti-CRT" laws, which impose restrictions on lessons about race and racism.

But even outside of Republican-led states, there are educators who are "reticent to teach Black history," Johns said, referring to a conversation he had with a coalition of social studies teachers throughout the country.

"There are already institutions that are closing programs, shifting positions, and otherwise cowering to these attacks that, to me, are clear threats against democracy," Johns added.

The broad desire to restrict open conversation in universities is a problem that affects our democracy, Young said. 

"Our democracy requires public education that creates spaces for free and open dialogue between people who are very different from one another," he added. "College campuses are one of the last bastions of open inquiry in the United States where people from very different backgrounds can meet each other and interact in formal settings with open conversation and dialogue and inquiry, and learn about people different from them. And if students in Florida are unable to learn about people who are different from them, they're going to grow up and become voters and leaders who lack awareness of the world in which they lead, and that will undermine the functioning of our democracy. So it's a very serious threat."

Echoing a similar sentiment, Johns said that such Republican-led efforts will also impact non-Black people, who continue to enjoy different privileges that haven't been targeted yet.

"If they are coming for us tonight, they might come for you in the morning," Johns said. "People who often sit on the sidelines and watch politics happen to other people… he is coming for you."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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