Give Ron DeSantis credit for this much: The Republican governor of Florida is a relatively transparent figure. Though his war on critical race theory isn’t based on facts, he’s open about what it means for educators and students. On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that DeSantis signed a bill “that will require public universities and colleges to survey students, faculty and staff about their beliefs and viewpoints to support ‘intellectual diversity.’”
What happens after the survey? The bill doesn’t say, but according to the Times, both DeSantis and the bill’s lead sponsor implied that “budget cuts could be looming” if they don’t care for the results of the survey. “It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas,” DeSantis said. “Unfortunately, now the norm is, these are more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.”
The public university is vulnerable to politicians like DeSantis. Budget cuts are a real and potentially devastating threat, and the governor’s statements don’t offer much reason for optimism. DeSantis sounds like a man who will see what he wants to see, whatever the reality. He’s already concluded that public universities are indoctrination factories, which provides all the justification he needs to attack their funding. In doing so, he makes explicit a tendency that has always been present in the panic over critical race theory. The crusade DeSantis adopted is hostile to free speech.
Florida’s survey bill carries with it an inherent threat: If you express speech the governor doesn’t like, punishment may follow. This is not unusual for foes of so-called critical race theory, who have fixed their sights on subjects that are not critical race theory at all. They seek to root out the accurate teaching of history, diversity training, and anti-racist education from public schools. That isn’t just an attack on the academic quality or the diversity of public education; it’s an attack on free speech, and it has become vicious.
DeSantis isn’t the only Republican to consider or pass legislation designed to restrict the teaching of “divisive subjects” in public classrooms. It’s become such a trend that the AAUP, PEN America, the American Historical Association, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities recently released a joint statement in defense of academic liberty. “First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn,” the statement read. “The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.
“In higher education, under principles of academic freedom that have been widely endorsed, professors are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject. Educators, not politicians, should make decisions about teaching and learning.”
Indeed, should is the operative word. But DeSantis knows that money is a powerful cudgel. With it, he can strike at academic freedom and make his agenda the only viable one that exists. While DeSantis is empowered to act in certain ways by the might of his office, it’s not hard to see a version of the same threat in wealthy Loudoun County, Virginia, where a group of parents have vitriolically protested the teaching of what they are calling critical race theory. Members of a local anti-racist Facebook group told NBC News that they have been doxxed and faced threats. “Having my address shared is really frightening, but I think it also speaks to the broader problem of how this is turning people on their neighbors,” said Jamie Neidig-Wheaton, an administrator of the Facebook group. “This is about people’s political aspirations and creating a wedge issue for midterms. What I want is to bring this back to addressing the real problem of racism in our schools.”
Neidig-Wheaton’s critics could point to her Facebook group as one source of conflict: Members had begun compiling a list of local parents they perceived as being hostile to anti-racist educational initiatives; screenshots then leaked to the public. From there, the dispute morphed into something much bigger, and potentially more dangerous. The Facebook group has become a strand in a local battle over CRT with parents — including some with links to Republican politics — protesting the idea of CRT in classrooms, though the district has said its schools do not actually teach the subject. Six Democratic school board members, several of whom belonged to the Facebook group, are facing a recall effort organized by a former spokesperson for President Donald Trump’s Justice Department. This, too, is an assault on speech and academic liberty. When parents and educators fear to teach, or to express their views in public, free speech is under threat.
At least DeSantis is an honest warrior. He’s open about what he believes, and what he wants, and that means punishing speech he doesn’t like.