An Assault on Reason; An Assault on Rights
The broader context of Florida barring professors from testifying in a voting rights case
As a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I could not believe what I was reading. Governor Walker had proposed removing “the search for truth” from the university mission statement. It was a moment of clarity that cut through the frog-in-the-slowly-boiling-water accommodation of an emerging set of norms.
I had a similar feeling reading about state officials telling professors at public universities in Florida that they were forbidden from testifying in court about the effects of new election laws in Florida. What? Can they do that?
Universities serve multiple functions. One is to speak truth to power. To enable that role societies have historically given these institutions an elevated status, with special protections for its employees, who are in turn supposed to use those privileges to invest in expertise and convey what they know to the public.
Sometimes power does not like to be spoken to. Sometimes power seeks to control without dissent. Sometimes power silences.
Big takeaway: the biggest threat to campus speech are state actors seeking to shut down speech that exposes their illiberal actions.
Let’s consider the broader context of how power was used in Florida. A government adopted a new voting law, motivated by a false claim of mass fraud. The law is intended to advantage the party in power, reflecting what political scientists label “competitive authoritarianism”: an erosion of democracy where the dominant party changes the rules of the game to enhance their partisan control, while still retaining the trappings of democracy like elections.
The law is also alleged to make it harder for Black and Latino voters. The pattern is not encouraging. So many eligible Black voters were removed from the voting rolls in Florida in 2000 that it almost certainly changed the outcome of the presidential election. Despite an overwhelming public vote in 2018 to remove Jim Crow era felon disenfranchisement laws that disproportionately affects Black citizens, state officials overturned the referendum by retaining what effectively amounts to a poll tax, resulting in just 8% of former felons being able to vote in 2020. The same politicians had previously blocked early voting on campus in an attempt to dilute student votes. The law was reversed by a judge who heard from one of the expert witnesses the state has now banned.
And so, national experts employed by the state of Florida are forbidden by the state from using their expertise to testify under oath about the effects of new laws for our most important political right. Why? Because the state expects such expert testimony to undermine the basic claims that those in power have made.
It’s not just voting. Other forms of political rights are under attack in Florida. The same politicians passed a law that ensures that protests of police action can easily be turned into felony convictions. They also granted drivers the right to run over protestors with their vehicles.
If you are a teacher in Florida you may be wary of talking about all of this, or suggesting that some broader systemic forces are at play. For the same set of politicians have passed a law that prohibits the teaching that “racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”
The law limiting the discussion of racism does not apply to universities, but a culture of fear does. If a professor teaches, for example, a certificate in social justice, they can expect to be attacked as a Marxist on national television by the senior state Senator. Faculty must now complete surveys about their political beliefs. If the political appointees who oversee public universities do not see sufficient “viewpoint diversity” they need to fix this problem or face budget cuts, according to the sponsor of this law and the Governor. The same law encourages students to secretly record faculty in their classroom for “educational purposes” or as part of lawsuits against the university. It is hard to imagine anything more chilling to campus speech than a professor so terrified of being sued or publicly lambasted that they stringently avoid any topic likely to offend local political sensibilities.
The attack on rights and silencing of dissent in Florida happened very quickly, and happened in tandem. Almost all of the laws cited were passed in the last two years. This pattern is playing out in many American states.
So, what lessons can we learn from Florida?
The erosion of rights depends upon silencing dissent
If you live in a state where it has become harder to get an abortion, protest, or vote, chances are you also live in a state where it has become harder for teachers to talk about these things in a classroom, or for professors for publicly discuss them without facing backlash or punishment. Universities, whatever their imperfections, are good vehicles for amplifying dissent. They are full of passionate young people and faculty with expertise and some freedom to use it. Such groups can draw attention to the broader historical context in which the erosion of rights occurs, and provide evidence as to their consequences, including the systematic targeting of certain groups. They may sometimes be wrong, or overzealous, but as a society we are better off having some institutional space for dissent for those moments when those in power stop respecting our rights.
All threats to campus speech are not equal
The greatest threats to campus speech are, and always have been, illiberal governments. It is no coincidence that the most severe clampdowns on campus speech occur under authoritarian regimes who otherwise have little in common, such as China, Turkey and Hungary.
Students can protest. Or complain. They always have. Part of being a university student is engaging in debates about the boundaries of the status quo. But they do not hold the power of the purse, or the ability to rewrite the laws that govern campus, including what can be taught in the classroom. Universities have managed unruly students for centuries, to the point that we might conclude that some measure of dissent is in fact essential to the campus. Universities fare far worse against coercive state power.
(There is a longer discussion to be had about why many people who present themselves as free speech advocates have used illiberal language to help whip up anger at students, faculty or administrators, while giving a free pass or just a passing nod to the bigger threats to speech. All I’ll say for now is that sort of selective outrage often ends up being used by policymakers with illiberal views to undermine campus speech).
By attacking universities, conservative legislators hurt their own states
Governor Walker would come to claim that the effort to remove the “search for truth” was a drafting error. We may well see something similar from the silencing of professors in Florida, who are now demanding to know if the Governor’s office was involved. We may be told that there was a misunderstanding, or an overzealous Dean. But the message will be clear enough to the faculty and administrators working in Florida. Lift your head above the parapet at your own risk.
I left Wisconsin a couple of years after “the search for truth” fiasco. Like any job change it was for a variety of personal and professional reasons. But I was increasingly worried about whether faculty in public institutions could, even with first amendment protections, work in an environment shaped by fear of political retribution.
I loved UW-Madison, and revered its traditions, including the fact that it played a founding role in establishing protections for faculty speech, pushing back when a state administrator sought to fire a pro-union faculty member. Those are traditions worth holding on to but increasingly under threat.
Generations of citizens and policymakers in Wisconsin, Florida, and many other midwestern and southern states created magnificent public institutions of higher education. It was a democratic triumph that made quality education accessible, and was anchored in a basic agreement that to succeed universities required some measure of autonomy and academic freedom. That agreement is fraying. Conservative policymakers portray faculty as part of a corrupt elite in their populist conspiracies, while increasingly exert direct political control over these institutions. Students and faculty seeking academic spaces outside of the shadow of state censorship will look instead to blue state or elite private institutions. That might suit the politicians well enough, but citizens will be worse off for losing a public space willing to speak truth to power.
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