Ron DeSantis Wants To Cultivate 'Viewpoint Diversity' by Censoring Universities
Florida's H.B. 999 claims to support "viewpoint diversity" and "intellectual rigor." It does just the opposite.
A bill introduced at the Florida House this week aims to erase a wide range of academic freedom protections for faculty at state colleges and universities and enact strict requirements on university curricula.
The bill was originally proposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in January. "In Florida, we will build off of our higher education reforms by aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition," said DeSantis in a January press release, adding that the legislation would be "eliminating politicized bureaucracies like DEI, increasing the amount of research dollars for programs that will feed key industries with talented Florida students, and empowering presidents and boards of trustees to recruit and hire new faculty."
House Bill 999 was introduced on Tuesday by Rep. Alex Andrade (R–Pensacola) and seeks to redesign Florida public universities around the supposed goal of "civic discourse that recognizes the importance of viewpoint diversity, intellectual rigor, and an evidence-based approach to history." To accomplish this goal, the bill would explicitly ban major or minor programs in "Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems." The bill also restricts general education classes, stating that they must not "include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence."
In addition to restricting what faculty can teach, the bill seeks to give state political appointees radically increased power in the hiring and firing of faculty—another move that will likely chill faculty speech. The bill effectively eliminates tenure, allowing a university's board of trustees to review any faculty member's tenure at any time. Further, this same board will have unilateral power over hiring faculty, with the bill stating that "the president and the board are not required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university."
The bill also bans universities from funding or promoting any "programs or campus activities… that espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric" and bans the use of "diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, Critical Race Theory rhetoric, or other forms of political identity filters as part of the hiring process." Notably, DeSantis' previous attempt to ban critical race theory at public universities was blocked in federal court last year.
The bill is a startling attack on academic freedom at Florida public universities—one that attempts to institute state-mandated political orthodoxy in curriculum and give politically appointed board members tremendous control over faculty hiring and firing.
"HB 999 would end academic freedom, shared governance, and university independence in FL public higher education in favor of one man's authoritarian control of public university decisions," tweeted Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, on Thursday. "It would be the end of FL higher ed as a space of open inquiry and free expression."
The bill is likely unconstitutional, placing illegal content-based restrictions on what professors can teach and what ideas universities can support. Though claiming to support "viewpoint diversity" and "intellectual rigor," this bill seeks to stifle just that—explicitly uplifting one political perspective while censoring others. If past legal fights over DeSantis' "Stop WOKE Act" are any indication, this bill, if signed into law, will almost certainly be challenged in court, where its most censorious provisions will likely be struck down.
Unfortunately, the First Amendment has not stood in the way of DeSantis pressing forward with an unconstitutional law before: Just this week, an ally in the Legislature introduced a blatantly unconstitutional attempt to rewrite defamation law.
"Free expression and higher education advocates must fight these provisions with everything we have, in Florida and in any other state where they appear," tweeted Young. "FL HB 999 is the central battleground for the soul of higher education. If we stand on the sidelines, we will lose."