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New Law Requires 'Viewpoint Diversity' Survey On Campus

University of West Florida

Governor says Florida universities are 'intellectually repressive'

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 233 into law last week, requiring public universities to survey students and staff annually about their beliefs to assess “viewpoint diversity” on campuses.

Barring any legal challenges, the law takes effect July 1. The four members of the western Panhandle delegation — Representatives Jayer Williamson, Alex Andrade and Michelle Saltzman, and Sen. Doug Broxson — voted in favor of the measure.

“The bill requires colleges and universities to conduct annual assessments on the intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at these institutions,” said DeSantis.

Speaking in Fort Myers before signing HB 233, the governor accused Florida’s universities and colleges of having become “intellectually repressive.”

“It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you would be exposed to a lot of different ideas,” said DeSantis. “Unfortunately now, the norm is really [that] you have orthodoxies that are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed. We don’t want that in Florida.”

Under the bill, surveys would be conducted annually on campuses, to gauge diversity in areas such as viewpoint and intellectual freedoms -- and determine how competing ideas and perspectives are offered. It would also measure students’ and faculties’ comfort levels, in expressing viewpoints in the classroom and on campus.

“If you send a kid to a university, are they just going to be basically indoctrinated, or are they going to be actually taught to think for themselves?” asked the Governor. “We obviously want our universities to be focused on critical thinking, [and] academic rigor. We do not want then as basically ‘hotbeds for stale ideology.’”

When pressed by reporters, the governor did not offer any specific examples of repression or discrimination faced by conservative students. DeSantis also hinted that there could be budget reductions for schools if they’re found to be – his word – “indoctrinating” students. However, the measure is vague when it comes to how survey results would be handled.

“It is unclear what the purpose of this bill is; and more importantly the bill raises some serious questions about how it will be implemented, and what its consequences will be,” said Benjamin Stevenson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Pensacola.

For now, he says they’re in a “wait and see” posture, because the new law is raising a lot of questions.

“Will colleges require their professors to disclose their personal viewpoints, whether or not they’re presented to students?” Stevenson said. “What consequences will befall a professor who’s not forthcoming in disclosing internal thoughts and beliefs to the government? Is ‘show me your papers’ being replaced with ‘tell me your thoughts?’ Will college students be required to complete the assessment? How will this information be used?”

Although the ACLU is in wait-and-see mode, Stevenson says there’s still work going on in case the organization gets involved. While the bill on the surface appears to champion diversity and freedom, he adds most people would be surprised if diversity of thought was not on campus.

“Or if there is a problem with that, that it’s professors and not the college administrators,” said Stevenson. “So it seems to be peculiar in its aim. The idea of curtailing free speech and the exchange of ideas is antithetical to higher education.”

What higher education needs to consider, says Stevenson, is the concept of so-called “alternative facts.”

“At a time when Floridians wrestle with an assault on fact; when ‘alternative facts’ become ‘truths’ simply because someone says it,” said the ACLU’s Benjamin Stevenson. “Few people outside Gov. DeSantis and Florida lawmakers would have believed colleges need to make more space in the classroom for these wild conspiracy theories divorced of facts.”

House Bill 233 was among three education bills signed by DeSantis last week. Senate Bill 1108 requires college students to take a civic literacy course and a civic literacy assessment as a graduation requirement; and House Bill 5 expands civics education for K-through-12 schools.