Ron DeSantis boasts that Florida is “where woke goes to die.” (Of course, it’s where everybody goes to die.) He also likes to call it “the free state of Florida.” If you think carefully about these slogans, which DeSantis’s supporters generally don’t, you might detect a wee contradiction. If Florida is “free,” then all ideas, including “woke” ones, ought to thrive there.
The answer to the contradiction is that DeSantis doesn’t care about freedom at all unless it’s the freedom to express ideas he believes in. That contradiction was exposed in especially clear fashion Thursday by a federal judge who struck down DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act,” his centerpiece attack on progressive academia, as a prima facie violation of the First Amendment.
The law forbids schools, universities, and even private businesses from espousing a series of concepts, including the idea that any person is oppressed or privileged because of their race or that anybody should “be discriminated against” in order “to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion.” The court struck down the higher-education portion of this law on the obvious grounds that it prohibits a professor from espousing a certain class of ideas.
The judge noted that if a professor invited Sonia Sotomayor to speak to a law-school class and she shared the following belief (which she wrote in her autobiography):
“I had no need to apologize that the look-wider, search-more affirmative action that Princeton and Yale practiced had opened doors for me. That was its purpose: to create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.”
… it would be in violation of Florida law.
Indeed, the only way Florida can defend its clumsy prohibition on expressing forbidden beliefs about racism is to assert the state has a blanket right to control ideas expressed in public-university classrooms. The law relies on “the notion that anything professors utter in a state university classroom during ‘in-class instruction’ is government speech, and thus, the government can both determine the content of that speech and prohibit the expression of certain viewpoints,” the court noted, which flies in the face of precedent.
There is a strong liberal argument to be made that essentialist ideas about race help justify illiberal restrictions on speech. The liberal response is to defend free speech. DeSantis’s response, by contrast, is to attempt to ban left-wing ideas about race.
This isn’t some accidental slipup on DeSantis’s part. He genuinely believes he possesses the legal and moral right to censor ideas expressed by academics. And while the Stop WOKE law has been struck down, DeSantis has succeeded in a more limited effort along the same lines: He has stacked the university system with political cronies and intimidated professors from giving testimony to the legislature that contradicts his positions.
At the National Conservatism Conference, representatives of Florida’s government and Hungary’s competitive-authoritarian regime were sharing notes in public. Hungary has cracked down on the higher-education sector, and DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw admiringly cited its slashing attacks on the media. There was little pretense of any attachment to a marketplace of ideas. The model DeSantis wishes to follow is Viktor Orbán, not John Stuart Mill.
Notably, the organization that fought and defeated DeSantis, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, is not a progressive group. FIRE is dedicated to free-speech norms and has fought tirelessly for campus free expression. It has stood up against speech restriction from both the right and the left, but given its longtime focus on academia, much of its work has been undertaken in opposition to illiberalism from the left. That the most effective opponent of left-wing political correctness took down his signature campus law ought to indicate that DeSantis is the furthest thing from a champion of free speech.