Statement Opposing Florida "Viewpoint Diversity" Legislation

The AAUP issued the following statement today.

In an ostensible effort to protect "intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity" on public college and university campuses, the Florida legislature has approved legislation that, like similar proposals this year in Iowa and elsewhere, amounts to what the AAUP has repeatedly described as a "solution in search of a problem." As we noted in response to the Iowa bill, "fear that the free exchange of ideas no longer occurs on campuses is grossly exaggerated." 

The Florida legislation comprises three main proposals. The first requires the state's two public university systems to select or create an "objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey" that would annually assess "the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented" on campus. The legislation offers no assurances that the survey’s answers will be anonymous, and there is no clarity on who will use the data and for what purpose. The potential dangers posed by such a survey to personal privacy and to freedom of association and belief are obvious. Moreover, the legislation fails to distinguish between the presentation of ideas in classrooms, where the concepts and principles presented must be subject to disciplinary standards, and expression in public forums by guest speakers or students, where the First Amendment applies. 

According to media accounts, supporters of the legislation have argued that "the cards are stacked in the education system . . . toward the left and toward the liberal ideology and also secularism—and those were not the values that our country was founded on." They argue that such a survey would expose that bias. Such arguments suggest that the legislation aims not to promote intellectual diversity but to advance favored viewpoints. The idea that the teachings and beliefs of the faculty must somehow reflect the prevalence of political or religious viewpoints among the citizenry fails to recognize that the whole point of academic freedom is to insulate professional judgment from political control. 

A second provision in the legislation would prevent the state's public colleges and universities from "shielding" students, faculty, and staff from speech that "they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive." But does this mean that a professor could be barred from enforcing respectful and appropriate classroom conduct by students? Outside the classroom such expression is already protected by the First Amendment, as the state's universities have recognized. Indeed, when white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in 2017, the institution spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security to ensure the talk could continue.

Under a third provision, students would be able to record classroom lectures surreptitiously, without a professor’s consent, for use in a civil or criminal case against the institution; this would selectively weaken Florida’s existing law that requires consent from both parties to record a conversation. While professors would have a civil cause of action against a student who published such a recording, the potential for abuse remains high, especially given repeated calls by well-funded outside advocacy groups to use such means to "expose" alleged faculty bias. Moreover, it is unclear what rights students in a class discussion that is recorded would retain. In 1915, the AAUP's founders observed that the "classroom utterances of college and university teachers . . . ought always to be considered privileged communications. Discussions in the classroom ought not to be supposed to be utterances for the public at large. They are often designed to provoke opposition or arouse debate." 

The Florida legislation and other such proposals are not only unnecessary, but could also impose on institutions potentially costly and overly bureaucratic burdens. US colleges and universities already conduct regular surveys of campus climate, sometimes mandated by accrediting agencies, and submit data to the federal government. The last thing they need is yet another unfunded reporting requirement. As we noted in response to similar bills in 2017, the AAUP opposes

any legislation that interferes with the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities by undermining the role of faculty, administration, and governing board in institutional decision-making and the role of students in the formulation and application of institutional policies affecting student affairs. The appropriate institutional regulations on campus free speech and protest, the invitation of outside speakers, and student discipline should be adopted through normal channels of institutional governance, and such regulations should be consistent with Association-approved statements on Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes, Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers, and the 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students.

If Florida legislators really want to provide stronger protection for viewpoint diversity, they should consider increasing funding for higher education so that a larger proportion of the faculty might be offered the prospect of tenure, which protects a faculty member's right to free expression. As it is, with nearly three-fourths of all US faculty on short-term contingent contracts, often subject to arbitrary nonrenewal, those with controversial views, be they liberal or conservative, may find themselves increasingly vulnerable to political or ideological pressure, including from legislation like this. 

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, April 13, 2021