DeSantis presses campuses to underscore free speech rights

Florida Capitol
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/7/19-The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings.COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Florida doesn’t suffer greatly from free-speech drama at its colleges and universities, as even Gov. Ron DeSantis concedes. Nevertheless, the governor is encouraging the higher education system to adopt a version of the Chicago Statement on free speech to enshrine the right to speak and think freely on campus.

“I’m happy to say that I do not think that Florida universities have seen some of the things we have seen in other places,” the governor said Monday during a news conference in Florida State University’s Dodd Hall.

Still, “there’s no room for a heckler’s veto, where you simply shout down and scream down a speaker so that they cannot articulate their views.”

His remarks came a little more than two weeks after DeSantis urged the State University System not to let Florida higher education become “a Berkeley” – the flagship University of California campus known for its student activism.

Flanking the governor Monday were representatives of Florida’s education hierarchy, including Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Florida State University President John Thrasher.

“The role of the university is not to shield students from speech that makes them uncomfortable,” DeSantis said Monday.The University of Chicago issued the statement that reinforces the institution’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom following a policy review by a faculty committee.

In Florida meanwhile, legislation to require campuses to survey students and professors about their political views, with an eye to identifying indoctrination, is pending in both the House and Senate.

Last year, the Legislature approved the Campus Free Expression Act, forbidding colleges and universities from restricting expression to special zones and forbidding anyone from disrupting campus speakers.

Restricting the time, place, and manner of some speech may be necessary so that universities can function, DeSantis said.

“But the idea that you get free speech only in one zone, and that you have other safe spaces where you’re not ever going to have to contend with an idea that you disagree with – that’s something that I reject. And I think the Legislature has rejected that. And I think that by embracing the Chicago principles, the university and college presidents here in Florida are saying that’s not the way to go.”

Florida hasn’t been entirely immune to speech-related disruptions, but Inside Higher Education praised the University of Florida for containing the uproar surrounding white-supremacist Richard Spencer’s appearance on campus in 2017.

Some speakers seek only to “stoke division,” DeSantis said. “An empty auditorium would be the best response that you could give to that.”

Same thing with Holocaust deniers.

“I would imagine if someone was coming to campus with that view, and I had the opportunity to go watch Florida State play basketball, I would choose to go to basketball rather than sit through drivel like that,” the governor said.

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