Florida bill would allow students to record professors to show political bias | Florida

Republicans in Florida have stepped up their assault on what they call “Marxist professors and students” in the state’s public universities and colleges with a bill that encourages the reporting of lecturers perceived to be stifling “viewpoint diversity” on campus.

The bill, currently awaiting the signature of the Florida governor and Donald Trump ally Ron DeSantis, will allow students to make recordings of lectures without their professors’ consent, and present them as evidence of political bias.

It requires all 40 of Florida’s state-funded institutions of postsecondary education to conduct an annual survey of faculty and students to establish how well intellectual freedoms are protected on campus; and to “shield” students from efforts to limit their “access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”

Any institution that blocks a student’s access to such “expressive activities”, the definition of which includes the content of lectures as well as “all forms of peaceful assembly, protests and speeches,” exposes itself to legal action, the new bill states.

Opponents say the shield clause, a late addition to the bill’s text as it worked its way through Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature, opens the door for white supremacist or other rightwing hate groups.

“As we saw in Charlottesville, if you give them an opening like that they will come,” Dr Karen Morian, the president of the united faculty of Florida (UFF) union of more than 20,000 educators, said. “And if it’s at FAMU [the historically black Florida agricultural and mechanical university] and they think they’re going to be able to intimidate black college students, they will come. That’s actually pretty scary.”

Morian said the clause allowing the clandestine recording of lectures is also problematic, despite the insistence by the bill’s defenders that educators have no right of privacy in a publicly-funded institution.

“It carves out our classrooms as a public space, whereas in actuality the general public cannot walk through it during class,” she said. “They can walk across the campus, or from the parking lot to the office, that’s public space. But my classroom has never been read as a public space.”

The Florida bill appears to align with the position of rightwing student activist groups such as Turning Point USA, which has long railed against what it sees as the left’s domination of campuses nationwide and maintains an online watchlist of radical professors who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom”.

The politicians who shaped the Florida law acknowledge there is no evidence that political bias is a problem in the state’s 12 public universities and 28 publicly-funded colleges, but argue that legislation is needed to find out if it exists.

The bill is currently awaiting the signature of the Florida governor and Donald Trump ally Ron DeSantis Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

“We have a lot of anecdotal evidence of largely conservative students feeling very uncomfortable sharing their viewpoints in university classrooms, they’re getting shut down,” said the state congressman Alex Andrade, a co-sponsor of the bill.

“It’s a common joke [among] conservative students that they have to tailor some of their essays to make them more progressive or left-leaning to get a better grade. When there’s at least anecdotal evidence that people are concerned about action against them for their political viewpoints it’s an issue we’d like to collect some data on.”

Opponents say there is no need for the law and state that mechanisms already exist for students to report offensive or egregious behavior by lecturers. “It’s based on national news reports and not related to any incidents in Florida,” Yale Olenik, an attorney and legislative specialist at the Florida Education Association, told lawmakers at a February hearing. “Florida’s colleges and universities are not reporting issues, students are not complaining.”

Andrade rejected the criticism. “Anytime a university professor is afraid of information that potentially makes them look bad, they translate ‘the solution in search of a problem’ because university professors have a pretty bad habit of always being right,” he said.

“This is just a strict collection of data related to people’s concerns about their viewpoints, whether progressive or conservative, being held against them on college campuses.”

The law’s architect, the state congressman Spencer Roach, did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment but in a tweet when the bill passed the Florida senate earlier this month he framed the bill as a “protection of intellectual diversity”.

“Freedom of speech is an unalienable right, despite what Marxist professors and students think,” he wrote.

Democrats who voted against the bill pointed to a series of aggressive educational manoeuvres that Republican lawmakers have attempted during Florida’s current legislative session, which ends next week.

Politicians backed down on a proposal to withhold scholarships from students pursuing degree courses they perceived as liberal, but are still advancing plans to end guaranteed funding for certain scholarships and tie their availability instead to the vagaries of state budgets.

This week, the Florida house voted to expand a school choice program that critics say strips money and resources from public schools and sends taxpayer money to private institutions with discriminatory practices.

“I’m not surprised that Republicans are hobbling public education from kindergarten to college because they are afraid of educated voters,” the state representative Omari Hardy said.

“Republicans have done poorly in recent years with college-educated voters, which has fed their belief and fear that colleges have become indoctrination camps. They believe college students are these frail and fragile intellectual creatures but there’s no data showing that professors are indoctrinating their students.”