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Florida Senators Debate Intellectual Freedom and Cancel Culture

A national survey suggested that cancel culture has infiltrated university campuses. 60% of students felt they could not express their opinion on a subject because of how students, professors, or the administration would respond, a trend making some Florida lawmakers concerned.

The public has widely discussed that young conservatives feel uncomfortable expressing their beliefs. Republican lawmakers in Florida have proposed Senate Bill 264 attempting to combat political bias in public universities by fostering intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.

The bill has already been passed by the House and cleared through three Senate committees.

There are three main components to the bill: requiring an annual assessment at public universities, prohibiting shielding, and permitting recordings of interactions on campus.

The first component would require public universities to conduct and publish an annual assessment analyzing the extent to which competing ideas are presented and members of the college community feel free to express their beliefs.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R- Lee County, says these assessments are necessary in order to learn about the university’s intellectual environment.

“If we have diversity, then we celebrate it,” Rodrigues told the Florida Political Review. “If not, that’s something the community and board of governors will work to improve.”

The second component of SB 264 is that it prohibits public universities from shielding students from speech protected under the First Amendment. To “shield” is defined as limiting students’ access to or observation of ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.

While some say this promotes exposure to diverse perspectives, others worry about the safety of students. Sen. Tina Polsky, D- Palm Beach County, has concerns about where to draw the line between not shielding students and keeping the community safe.

Currently, public universities are required to adhere to the freedom of speech principle under the First Amendment. This means that universities cannot prohibit speakers from coming to campus because of a disagreement with the speaker’s views.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education created a database to track incidences of universities’ disinviting speakers that they do not agree with, a trend that has been on the rise nationally for the past 15 years.

Of the disinvited speakers, conservatives were turned away due to voices on the left over two times more than liberals turned away due to voices on the right. Since 2016, mainstream conservative commentator Ben Shapiro alone was disinvited from five universities due to his beliefs.

Polsky told the Florida Political Review that individuals or groups deemed “hateful” should be barred from speaking on campuses. “College campuses are for academics. Groups that come should further knowledge and good values,” she said.

The fact that universities are an academic environment, according to Rodrigues, is precisely the reason why students should not be shielded from different perspectives.

SB 264 also allows students to record their professors in classrooms. If a student felt like a professor is imposing their political views on them, the student would be legally permitted to record the interaction.

Clay Calvert, the director of the First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, told the Florida Political Review that this provision could have a “chilling effect” in classrooms. Professors may self-censor certain topics for fear of losing their job, which could hinder education on politically sensitive subjects.

While recordings are legally permitted for personal use, students are not allowed to sell recordings or publish them on social media. These recordings are also bound by the privacy protections provided in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Because public universities are already bound by the First Amendment, Calvert questions whether or not SB 264 is necessary at all.

“If the bill’s purpose is to inform, then that is laudable,” Calvert told the Florida Political Review. Calvert noted concerns that the annual assessment could be used as a means of withholding funding from universities, though there has been no mention of this by lawmakers.

Polsky believes that SB 264’s purpose is purely to “make a political statement” against cancel culture.

According to Rodrigues, cancel culture and the resulting self-censorship are reasons why this bill is necessary in Florida.

A survey conducted at the University of North Carolina discovered that students hold divisive stereotypes about classmates with different political beliefs and that disparaging comments against conservatives are common.

Additionally, the survey found that students across the political spectrum engage in classroom self-censorship. Rodrigues’s goal is to conduct a similar assessment at Florida universities in order to learn how to foster a more open academic atmosphere.

Currently, the bill is moving through the Senate. If passed, the bill is set to become effective on July 1.

Featured image: Century Tower at the University of Florida. Unmodified photo by Kate Haskell used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/2YSb1cy)

Check out other recent articles from the Florida Political Review here.        

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