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Historians express 'horror' at Florida's HB 999. They say it threatens academic freedom

A general view of the Old Capitol and current Florida Capitol buildings Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Phil Sears/AP
FR170567 AP
A general view of the Old Capitol and current Florida Capitol buildings Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023 in Tallahassee, Fla.

A Republican plan to restrict the way history is taught at Florida's colleges and universities is receiving outcry from academics, particularly historians, from across the U.S.

The American Historical Association's Council issued a statement earlier this month urging lawmakers to oppose HB 999, which passed its first committee stop on Monday along party lines.

“This is not only about Florida," the letter states. "It is about the heart and soul of public higher education in the United States and about the role of history, historians, and historical thinking in the lives of the next generation of Americans."

In the letter, the association's members express "horror" — instead of the "usual concern" — that that the legislation would give politically-appointed boards the power to dictate how American history is taught at the state’s universities, instead of leaving decisions about course content to faculty and administrators. They describe it as a "blatant and frontal attack on principles of academic freedom."

Among other things, the bill would ban majors and minors that require courses in subjects related to critical race theory, gender studies and intersectionality. It would also prohibit general education core courses from including critical race theory in the curriculum.

“It is not possible to teach American history without racism and the legacy of slavery being a central concept," Grossman said. "Some people would make it the central concept, some would not, but it’s not possible.”

The original House version would've prevented subject matter that "defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” That part has since been removed from the House version, but the Senate version — SB 266 — includes that language.

In response, the AHA proposes this hypothetical in its letter: "Is it illegal for a faculty member to suggest that the U.S. Constitution, rather than the Declaration of Independence, created the political framework for the new nation?"

The bill would also give university boards of trustees the power to hire faculty members, and then review their tenure at any time, with cause.

“Right now, when you hire a history professor, the other history professors decide who’s the best person to hire, which makes a lot of sense," Grossman said. "This bill basically does away with structures like that.”

Seventy-two other organizations have signed on to the AHA's statement, including the American Association of University Professors, the American Philosophical Association and the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.

The United Faculty of Florida, the statewide union of college and university professors, also opposes the proposed restrictions on curriculum. The organization has described it as an attack on academic freedom.

“That is attempting to force or compel speech from faculty around how we think about the founding of the country," said Andrew Gothard, president of UFF. “It seems as though it would ban a higher-education faculty member from presenting Thomas Jefferson, for instance, as a complex figure who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but also owned slaves.”

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.