Both houses of Florida’s state legislature have approved a bill that threatens to undermine the independence and academic freedom of faculty to teach and research at the state’s publicly funded institutions of higher learning. The bill, which awaits the governor’s signature, allows students to record in classrooms without the consent of their professors; it also mandates the State Board of Education and the Board of Governors to conduct an assessment of the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” at every institution in the Florida College System, ostensibly to guarantee that a variety of political and ideological perspectives are represented on campuses.
The proposed law, supposedly designed to ensure transparency in the classroom and protect students’ free speech rights, instead constitutes a legislative intrusion that will have a chilling effect on the free exchange of opinions it claims to enhance. The law would have a particularly pernicious effect on students’ abilities to express their views freely in an open environment.
Policies about recording lectures and class discussions are normally set by college or university administrations or by individual faculty. In setting policy, administrators and faculty ideally take into the consideration the tension between the academic needs of their students and the need to ensure a safe and open environment in which faculty and students can discuss controversial topics in an informed manner. This law would remove the decision on recording in the classroom from the purview of the university and faculty and unilaterally grant it to individual students. Moreover, it allows for the use of such recordings in civil and criminal proceedings. Joe Cohn, of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, points out that the “consequences of giving a statutory green light to recordings and litigation around their use is fraught with the potential to wreak havoc with classroom instruction, chilling faculty and student speech.” Florida’s Advisory Council of Faculty Senates passed a resolution in March echoing Cohn’s assessment of the bill’s impact on the free exchange of ideas.
The Florida bill is part of a wider attempt on the part of state legislatures in Idaho, Iowa, Florida and elsewhere, to intervene in university governance to address what they perceive to be a lack of intellectual and ideological diversity. In Iowa, Republican State Senator Jim Carlin has proposed a bill to survey employees of Iowa’s three public state universities on their political affiliation to ensure ideological and political balance at the universities. The Florida bill also includes a mandate to survey students and faculty about their political beliefs to determine the “extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented to members of the college community,” and whether they are “free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.” Florida faculty have expressed concern about the bill’s lack of clarity on the repercussions they might face if they refuse to fill out the surveys. While such surveys may be useful for research purposes, they present a threat to academic freedom and the independence of the university when they are mandated by law to serve political agendas, and when they may be used to determine the funding allocated to particular public institutions of higher education.
We call on university administrators in Florida to support their faculty and speak out against the threat the bill poses to academic freedom and free speech rights of both faculty and students, as well as to proper governance and independence of Florida’s colleges and universities.
The following ACLS Member Societies have signed on to this statement:
American Academy of Religion
American Anthropological Association
American Folklore Society
American Historical Association
American Musicological Society
American Philosophical Association
American Society for Environmental History
American Society for Theatre Research
American Sociological Association
Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
German Studies Association
National Council on Public History
Organization of American Historians
Shakespeare Association of America
Society of Biblical Literature
World History Association