A Florida Free Speech Professor Discusses Ron DeSantis’ Assault on the First Amendment
The University of Florida was roiled in the fall of 2017 when Richard Spencer tried to bring his white nationalist roadshow onto the school’s campus. He’d just made his way through Charlottesville, Virginia, that summer for the Unite the Right rally, and many were worried that a Spencer-led rally could lead to violence on campus. University President Ken Fuchs initially tried to prevent Spencer from speaking, but in the end he allowed it. There was nothing he could do. The First Amendment is the First Amendment.
“The University of Florida can’t say we like country music, but we don’t like alternative music — or in this case, we like diversity, but we don’t like Richard Spencer’s message,” Clay Calvert, a UF free speech professor and director of the school’s Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, told The New York Times.
Spencer’s appearance was a clear testament to the university’s role as an impartial marketplace of ideas, but Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Republican state legislature still aren’t convinced. Last week, the MAGA-friendly governor signed a bill mandating students and faculty at the state’s public universities be surveyed about “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented,” with a goal of ensuring students “feel free to express beliefs and viewpoint on campus and in the classroom.”
It’s not clear what the survey will look like and what will be done with the results, but the bill has raised concerns that the GOP wants to control the discourse on campuses. In announcing the bill, DeSantis threatened to defund universities found to be “indoctrinating” students with what he described as “stale ideology.” What exactly is “stale ideology”? It’s up to Republicans and the state’s Board of Education, whose chairman doesn’t believe evolution should be taught as fact.
University campuses aren’t the only places where DeSantis is working to stifle free speech. In April, he signed an “anti-riot” bill to counter demonstrations around the Derek Chauvin verdict, prompting legal challenges. A month later, he signed a bill that would prevent social media companies from banning accounts of politicians running for office in the state, prompting more legal challenges. A month after that, DeSantis successfully pushed the Florida Board of Education to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in public school classrooms, arguing such a ban would prevent the school system from “indoctrinating” students with “toxic” ideology. (The unspoken but obvious undercurrent here is that DeSantis is jockeying to be the heir to Donald Trump’s bigoted political empire, possibly through a run for president in 2024.)
As we’ve been reminded with terrifying clarity since Trump took office, not even the most foundational elements of American democracy should be taken for granted. This remains the case in Florida, which is now legislating the former president’s assault on the First Amendment.
Rolling Stone recently spoke to Calvert, the UF free-speech professor who defended Spencer’s presence on campus, about the bill DeSantis signed last week, the greater “landslide” of anti-First Amendment legislation in Florida, and how the discourse around free speech has changed during the Trump era.
What was your reaction to this new legislation passing?
Unfortunately, I was not surprised that this made it through a conservative-dominated legislative body in Florida, particularly after the deplatforming of Trump in January by Twitter and Facebook. Florida is a very large red state that perceives free speech to be under attack, whether it’s on social media platforms or in public universities. Certainly there is a perception among some people that public universities lean to the left in terms of the content that’s taught and how it’s being taught.
I think it’s very unfortunate because it clearly provides lawmakers in Tallahassee with a potential weapon to withhold funding from a state university in Florida, based upon results of surveys that show conservative students somehow feel unable to speak up in the classroom, or that they are not receiving a complete diversity of viewpoints. [They could say that] a university is supposed to be a diverse marketplace of ideas, and you’re not allowing that to happen, so therefore, until you do better, we’re going to withhold this funding from you. That’s the dire scenario, the worst case scenario. The positive side might be that it’s simply informational. The university could say, “OK, we need to think about how we’re doing this.” Or maybe parents could say to themselves, “You know, this university seems to be this, I don’t want my child to go there.” So we just don’t know what how those data are going to be used.
What are some of the other adverse effects this bill could have, outside of the potential defunding of public universities?
That’s clearly the biggest one, in my view. The other danger is targeting particular professors. I think the potential is there — especially in some classes where you’re going to be talking about controversial topics, whether it’s immigration or abortion or gay rights — for professors to stay away from even talking about a particular subject matter, because it may be perceived by a student in the classroom as an endorsement of that viewpoint. Critical race theory, let’s say, which is obviously another issue in Florida. [A professor might say], “Here are the values of critical race theory, here are the criticisms of it.” But the student might simply hear, “Here are the values of it,” and so take it as an endorsement. So the irony might be that while the bill is supposed to ensure a diversity of viewpoints, the professors might squelch completely expressing all views because they may be perceived as endorsing one. That’s always a danger.
They’re mandating the survey, they’re not mandating that people fill it out. Those who are going to be motivated to fill it out are going to be the ones who feel aggrieved. Most students get tons of surveys every day and are just going to say, “Forget it, I’m not going to fill it out.” The middle kind of drops out. I think that’s going to skew the results.
So these surveys could very easily wind up offering a false confirmation of Republican fears over what’s happening on campus.
I think that’s it. The positive side is that it does recognize that universities are supposed to be diverse marketplaces of ideas. The United States Supreme Court has made that clear — that the classroom and surrounding environs are quintessential marketplaces of ideas and that’s what public universities are supposed to be. So that’s where this all sounds good. I think professors and students and faculty and parents would all agree: Yes, my students should have the ability to hear all viewpoints and for them to be rationally discussed. But that’s kind of the cloak under which this is being signed.
There really are plenty of layers of irony here. DeSantis helped ban critical race theory from lower schools and just a few weeks later signed a bill to guard against “intellectually repressive environments.”
He always uses the phrase Big Tech to discuss the other bill, the deplatforming bill. I wouldn’t be surprised if now we’re going to get Big Education somewhere down the line.
What have you been hearing from other faulty members since the bill was signed? What’s the level of concern like?
The faculty senate met and they were against the notion of this. I think the idea is that a public university already must comply with the terms of the First Amendment. We can’t discriminate against particular viewpoints. We had to allow Richard Spencer to come to campus. During the campaign, Trump Jr. came to campus. There were protests, but he was allowed to speak with Kimberly Guilfoyle on campus. That was an example of where a conservative speaker was allowed to come, and the liberal side that doesn’t like him is allowed to protest him. That’s essentially what you get.
Have you noticed a lot of tension on campus since Trump took office? Is there any sense at all that some students aren’t happy with what they’re being taught and how it’s being presented?
I’ve never gotten that particular impression, that it’s really changed much. I haven’t really heard any complaints. Maybe there’s a perception that it has. This is maybe trying to tap into that. Are they really complaining and can we objectively measure that? Is this really legislation in search of a problem? Is this a tail wagging the dog kind of a situation? It’s all political gamesmanship, really. That’s why we have this. That’s why the Big Tech legislation is there, too. Same thing with critical race theory. There are multiple pieces of legislation going through right now and it’s all kind of laying the groundwork potentially for DeSantis to run for president.
Do you think the faculty, like students, may also abstain from filling out this survey, or are they going to be more likely to participate so they can help prove these assumptions about biased viewpoints wrong?
I would think faculty would be the ones more likely [to fill it out]. I would certainly fill it out just to express my own views about it. I don’t know one professor, at least in my college of journalism and communication, who goes in and just dictates one political viewpoint. So is this legislation in search of a problem? Maybe it’s going to find out there’s a perception of a problem among some students. The other question is at what point does that data actually flip or do enough for lawmakers to take action? What does it have to say? It’s all going to be subjective in terms of somebody’s interpretation, saying 12 percent of the students, or 25 percent, or 50. Where does that come in where lawmakers say that’s enough, we need to take action?
It’s a pretty scary thing to leave up to the discretion of the Republicans who passed the bill, when, like you said, it’s mostly political gamesmanship.
How do you feel like the discourse around the First Amendment has changed since Trump took office? Is there anything in particular about how free speech is being discussed that has stood out to you?
I think I think from the left, free speech is perceived as a weapon that can be used by corporations to promote themselves after Citizens United, and also that by protecting a lot of hateful speech it can be used to harm minorities. We’re almost seeing a free speech flip flop from the past, where we used to think of liberals as being the supporters of free speech and protecting the little guy’s ability to speak up. Now, I think the perception is that protecting a wide range of hateful speech is damaging to the principle of equality.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. There is no unprotected category called hate speech. Hate speech is only not protected if it’s used in the context of an already unprotected category, like fighting words, true threats, and incitement to violence. But generally speaking, the First Amendment gives us a lot of protection to say a lot of offensive things.
There’s been a lot of tension between the principles of equality versus individualism. The individual side holds that everybody should be able to speak up and say what they want, even if that speech is offensive or harmful. The other [misconception] that comes up, and this is more of the problem on the right side, is that when Trump is deplatformed from Twitter and Facebook, people think that’s violating his First Amendment rights. It’s not. The First Amendment does not protect us from private censorship. Facebook is not the government. It may think it is, but it’s not.
The First Amendment is viewpoint neutral. It doesn’t say good speech, bad speech. It doesn’t say Republican or Democrat. Your views or you are welcome on both sides. We live in a country that is so evenly divided that we flip flop from Republicans to Democrats every 4, to 8, to 12 years. Whoever is in power now is going to be out of power sometimes, so you can’t just protect what the majority likes. The First Amendment is there to protect minority-based viewpoints, dissenting views. It’s certainly an interesting time.
Have you ever seen anything like what we’ve seen from Florida recently as far the volume of legislative action against free speech? Is there any precedent for this?
I’ve never seen such a landslide of legislation come down within a matter of several months — several weeks, actually — as we have recently. Whether it’s ramping up punishments for protesters; whether it’s the Big Tech and the inability to deplatform candidates for either state or local office in the state of Florida upon penalties of massive amounts of dollars; whether it’s not teaching critical race theory in lower schools; whether it’s this legislation right now mandating surveys of students and faculty. There certainly has been a consistent drumbeat of legislation dropping in the state of Florida.
Considering this drumbeat along with the prospect that DeSantis and his kind of right-wing activism taking control of the country, how concerned are you for the future of the First Amendment in America?
I do fear for the overall state of free speech as the government slowly tries to manipulate the marketplace of ideas. Basically, that’s what’s happening [in Florida]. The government is intervening in many ways to manipulate and regulate the marketplace of ideas. I think it’s all political, it really is. Florida is a huge state, a very populous state, and it’s a red state, and this is simply, I think, pushback. Florida is taking a stand on these issues — whether it’s public universities being perceived as being or left leaning, whether it’s going after protesters in the streets who are in the mind of the legislature causing violence and disrupting things, whether it’s in grade schools with critical race theory and the idea of indoctrination. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s happening very quickly. Lawsuits have already been filed against the Big Tech [bill], and I think they’ve been filed against the protest bill, so some of these will shake out because we do have the First Amendment. But it is a rather scary time right now.
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