Will legislation in FL stifle or encourage free speech on college campuses?

College Hall at the New College of Florida in Sarasota. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Lawmakers will take up political censorship, threats to free speech and conservatism vs. liberal ideas at colleges and university campuses in the 2021 legislative session, as a new bill aims to measure intellectual diversity in higher education.

State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a Republican who represents part of Lee County, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 264. His bill, along with a companion bill in the House, proposes that institutions of higher education in Florida should annually measure intellectual freedom on campuses to determine if diversity of ideas are encouraged or stifled.

In a Tuesday Senate committee meeting on education, Rodrigues expressed concerns over threats to free speech and the “marketplace of ideas” on college campuses, and proposed that an “objective” assessment could help identify if Florida campuses are threatening students’ First Amendment rights.

Rodrigues cited several surveys that noted instances of students censoring themselves out of fear of how their peers would respond, often from conservative-leaning people.

The bill appears to be part of a push from Florida Republicans to campaign against “conservative censorship.” Many across the political spectrum feel that the culture at institutions of higher education tend to lean towards liberal ideas.

The bill would combat these trends by requiring higher education institutions to survey their campus to measure the “extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented.”

But as of now, few details are known about how this bill would be implemented should it pass. The bill does not discuss funding for these surveys or what to do with the data once it’s gathered.

The bill prohibits state entities that oversee colleges and universities from “shielding” their students from free speech protected under the First Amendment. Again, the language appears to be vague and does not define specifically what “shielding” means in the context of this bill.

Another component to the bill is that it attempts to amend current laws addressing the right to free-speech activities on campuses.

Should the bill pass, video or audio recorded in classrooms could be published on the internet as an expression of free speech.

Public testimony from a Florida State University professor worried that the bill could allow students to distribute entire lectures from professors without permission.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.