Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed a piece of legislation that could wreak havoc on the freedom of speech and academic freedom of Florida’s institutes of higher education. The law would require all public colleges and universities to survey students, professors, and staff on their political beliefs in what DeSantis said is an attempt to promote “intellectual diversity.”
At stake for these schools—which DeSantis insists are fueling “indoctrination”—is a potential loss of funding, which the governor has threatened but is not explicitly outlined in the legislation. Going into effect on July 1, the new law also demands that university students “be shown diverse ideas and opinions, including those that they may disagree with or find uncomfortable,” according to the Florida Department of Education.
The law follows a string of moves by Florida Republicans to dictate what schools can or cannot teach their students. Last week, DeSantis banned Florida schools from teaching students about racism through critical race theory or “The 1619 Project”—neither of which any Florida school district was actually teaching prior to the ban. And on the same day that DeSantis signed the “intellectual diversity” law, he also signed another law requiring schools teach their students that communism is “evil.”
As part of the anti–critical race theory law, the state also banned “culturally responsive teaching,” which is the idea that encourages teachers to connect with students by helping them connect their backgrounds and life experiences to what they learn in school. “[The legislators] are trying to block teachers from really being able to better understand the students they’re teaching, so they can relate to them, so they can connect to them, so they can better teach them,” says Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Educators Association.
Florida isn’t alone. The state’s changes are the latest in a wave of conservative fear-mongering and censorship of left-wing ideologies in education, including other public universities—such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure after backlash from conservatives and top donors.
Despite being passed, the legality of the law is still questionable, according to Howard Wasserman, a professor of law at Florida International University. “For the government to say, ‘You have to do this or [this survey] is something you have to respond to as a condition of being a student in this school’? I think that that would violate the students’ First Amendment rights,” he said. “If they surveyed faculty members, same thing.” According to Wasserman, it could also open the doors for schools to dictate who is or isn’t granted admission based on their political beliefs, which would violate a constitutional protection against discrimination based on viewpoints.
Still, the “intellectual diversity” legislation has the potential to pose big risks to educators as long as it is in effect. Spar notes that one major concern is the complete lack of clarity on how the data will be collected and used. Similarly unknown is what would be on the survey, how it would be conducted, and how it would be enforced.
Spar also worries that the law could also continue to drive teachers and staff away from public education, worsening the state’s years-long teacher shortage. To add to the problem, Florida schools are also suffering from severe underfunding: Despite having the U.S.’s fourth-largest economy, Florida is 45th in the country when it comes to education funding.
Florida’s conservative legislators have unsuccessfully attempted to pass similar “intellectual diversity” bills in the past and credit the state’s increasingly right-wing politics as a reason why it was easier to get through the Legislature this year, according to state Sen. Ray Rodrigues, the bill’s sponsor. But Spar sees a parallel reason. “I think we have a governor who wants to run for president, and clearly is making this part of a political attempt to divide people,” Spar says. “But the reality of it is, we should know our history.”