The DeSantis attack on campus speech
The biggest threat to free speech is an illiberal government
Illiberal regimes achieve their goals through a coercive mixture of legal action and extra-legal intimidation. This is exactly what Ron DeSantis is now doing in Florida. While his Stop WOKE Act has been blocked by a federal court, DeSantis is proceeding undeterred in his attack on race-related campus speech.
Jonathan Cox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida, canceled two courses on race that he was scheduled to teach this past fall. Credit: Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic
To recap: DeSantis engineered the Stop WOKE Act. Like other laws DeSantis laws has pushed, it seems obviously unconstitutional. A federal court blocked it in November, calling it "positively dystopian."
Nevertheless, on December 28, DeSantis sent a memo to all institutes of higher education in Florida, asking them identify any funding spent on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives, or on Critical Race Theory. The memo is a signal to higher ed administrators that DeSantis will continue to target parts of the curriculum he dislikes, and threaten their budget in the process of doing so.
This should be a red line for conservatives: with one action, DeSantis is thumbing his nose at the rule of law, attacking free speech, and higher education. But the opposite is true. DeSantis has taken on these culture wars precisely because he believes that in the Trumpified version of the Republican Party, doing so will gain him credit. He is differentiating himself from Trump not on policy, but on the competence and ruthlessness of his illiberalism.
The effects of illiberalism are already happening
You might assume that the effects of the Stop WOKE Act will be determined by the courts. That is a mistake, one that exaggerates the power of the rule of law in a context where the Governor is not overly concerned about court rulings. DeSantis is betting that by the time he is compelled to stop a particular action by some higher court, the damage he has wrought will not be easily undone.
He may be right. The effects of the law can already be seen.
One basic lesson from the study of policy implementation is that the political environment in which policy is applied matters a lot, regardless of what the law says. This includes both statutory text (defenders of the Stop WOKE Act insist it is just about not imposing racialized guilt, not about banning any discussion of race), and what the courts ultimately decide. The actors on the ground interpret such things in the context of their political environment, reading what actions will be popular and what will be punished.
DeSantis has created an anti-intellectual environment where faculty feel threatened, higher education boards are political hacks, and administrators are afraid to stand up for academic freedom. These are not the conditions associated with free speech or scholarly excellence.
The Florida anti-speech laws have certain characteristics. They are vague, making them impossible to satisfy, and leaving faculty in a state of uncertainty and risk if they even talk about race. They rely on crowd-sourced enforcement. Students can record lectures as part of complaints about bias. Anyone in conservative media can complain about a course title they claim violates the law. Faculty are surveyed about their political beliefs, with the suggestion that a lack of ideological balance might affect the university budget. Violations of the Stop WOKE Act could trigger massive budget cuts.
The culture of fear is in place, whatever the courts ultimately say.
DeSantis does not to have to order the dropping of a particular class, or the punishment of a particular professor. But he has assembled the machinery to make sure that it happens in the increasingly unlikely scenario that the professor offends the regime in the first place. Faculty have been told that they face punishments and lack institutional legal protections if they are judged to have violated the Stop WOKE Act.
The effects can be seen in the classroom based on what is no longer there: the disappearance of certain topics from discussion, the dropping, renaming or revision of courses, the closure of specific research areas. ProPublica and The Atlantic wrote an excellent review of the facts on the ground. For example, the Sociology Department in the largest university in a very large state no longer offers courses that specializes in race after faculty stopped teaching them. That is a remarkable fact for a scholarly discipline where race and power is a central topic. For faculty, it seems impossible to offer a critical and scholarly perspective on race that is consistent with state law.
Faculty are also changing how they teach to avoid falling foul of the censors:
McCreary, who is up for tenure this year, has also shifted his teaching method from lecturing to class discussion. He wants to avoid complaints under another new Florida law that allows students to record professors’ lectures for evidence of political bias.
Faculty I have spoken to in Florida do not believe the regime of censorship is just for show. Some are getting out if they can. Academia operates like a market. While there is an oversupply of labor generally, there is a strong demand for the best faculty. If you have a choice, who will join an institution where you can be fired for teaching basic academic theories on race?
And so, the quality of faculty available to Florida students will decline. Those that stay will avoid bringing their full expertise to the classroom if they want to hold onto their jobs
The DeSantis views on higher education and speech are extreme
DeSantis did not build this censorious environment overnight. We learned in 2021 that faculty were told not to use their research expertise in court cases related to Covid or election administration when it clashed with the position of the DeSantis administration. Faculty were also warned by administrators “not to criticize the Governor of Florida or UF policies related to Covid-19 in media interactions.”
Faculty appealed. DeSantis lost the case, but by following up with the Stop WOKE Act he continues to win by reshaping the political environment.
DeSantis effectively codified his position on higher education in his defense of the Stop WOKE bill: academic freedom in speech and research is permitted as long as it does not contradict the edicts of the ruling party. This is not an exaggeration. The judge who issued an injunction against the Stop WOKE Act, pointed to the law’s Orwellian logic:
the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom’…Under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves.
The DeSantis legal position is, in effect, that there is no such thing as academic freedom for professors in most of the universities in America. Because they work for state institutions, they are obliged to follow government speech. This is a truly radical and dangerous notion, one that will gut the capacity of higher education to provide any sort of dissenting or critical voices on issues of public controversy.
It is also at odds with prior case law, as Keith Whittington explains here, adding:
The stakes for the future of academic freedom in higher education could not be higher. If Florida wins on those grounds, the state could direct state university professors on what they say in their teaching and scholarship and sanction or fire professors for teaching or researching ideas that politicians do not like.
DeSantis is not alone. His views on academic speech are entirely consistent with that of leaders in China, Russia, Turkey and Hungary. Totalitarians have always targeted higher education in their bid to quash sources of dissent. They impose systems of control, surveillance, and punishment. Some of the techniques are even the same. Encouraging students to record and report faculty of wrongthink, as one Florida law does, is a tactic that faculty in China are all too familiar with.
The DeSantis view on what speech is offensive is also fairly expansive. He is against “woke.” Well, what does that mean? The achingly bad acronym ("Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees”) in the Stop WOKE Act does not help. His lawyers defined woke as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” Are such views so dangerous that they must be banished from discussion in the academy?
Apparently so. In the meantime, DeSantis will use public power and public dollars to repurpose higher education so that it reflects his values. Another indicator of this was his appointment of Chris Rufo, the activist who has led an attack on public education in America by creating moral panics around Critical Race Theory and grooming, to be one of the trustees of Florida’s New College. New College reportedly has a left-leaning student body, but DeSantis wants to make it more like Hillsdale, an explicitly ideological private college, according to his staff. Hillsdale has previously advised DeSantis on revising K-12 curriculum, playing a leading role in blocking math and civic textbooks for use for imagined violations of state law like critical race theory.
In addition to Rufo, the new board will include a professor of Hillsdale and former leader at the Heritage Foundation, and a fellow of the far-right Claremont Institute. “Turning New College into a Florida version of Hillsdale would amount to flipping it upside down, a wholesale reinvention akin to a hostile takeover” according to local reporter. But DeSantis knows better. He will complain about ideological institutions, even as seeks to remodel Florida education on institutions that have boosted attacks on democracy. One Hillsdale leader involved in a plot to organize fake electors after the 2020 election, and John Eastman, one of the key plotters to overturn the 2020 election, remains a fellow in good standing at Claremont.
Where are the campus speech warriors?
DeSantis sees a political benefit in attacking higher education. Is he correct? Or will he pay some sustained penalty for his illegal attack on speech? After all, there has been no topic of such concern among conservatives and centrist media in recent years as free speech, especially on campus.
But my guess is that this fervor is unlikely to be directed to the same degree against DeSantis as it has been against students and faculty. DeSantis will receive a passionless pushback from the center, while his actions will be politely ignored or even praised praised by the campus speech alarmists on the right. To understand why requires seeing clearly one aspect of the dynamics of campus speech coverage.
A lot of the right wing accusations of censorship gain momentum in the opinion pages; actual right wing censorship is covered as news, but is much less likely to feature in the opinion pages.
Think about some of the most talked-about cases of free speech censorship over the last couple of years. A professor, Dorian Abbot, was disinvited from giving a talk at a university, and then re-invited. A student wrote that she did not feel like her conservative ideas were being debated in class. A conservative lawyer was invited to run a campus legal center, made some derogatory remarks about Black female jurors, was investigated but not punished, and resigned anyway.
These stories are difficult to understand as national news, even though they were treated as such in venues such as the New York Times. But they arouse emotions: look at these intolerant students/faculty! And they are presented as reflecting some large and profound change about our society. This is great material for the opinion page, where the writers can move beyond the norms of journalistic objectivity to tell a sweeping tale. They have chosen to focus on liberal intolerance of speech as their primary story.
For example, New York Times readers learned more about Abbot being disinvited from a talk at MIT than the story about Florida blocking multiple professors from testifying in lawsuits against the state government. (I focus on the Times not to single it out, but because it is the paper of record, even as it is criticized as being too progressive). Why was the Times more focused on the Abbot case, rather than the Florida censorship case, a story it broke? The simple answer is that attacks on what are seen on conservative speech are more likely to migrate to the opinion page, where writers present them in calamitous terms.1
These trends aren’t new. One analysis found that in an 18 month period between 2016-2018, the NY Times has published 21 op-eds on the suppression of conservative speech on campus, vs. 3 (including mine) on conservative threats to free speech. This trend, as Parker Molloy pointed out in 2021, was driven partly by the desire to “bring a new perspective to bear on the news” by hiring people like Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens, who are very interested in campus speech but only when conservative speech is endangered.
This is not to say that every complaint about students, or “wokeness” or whatever you want to label it was illegitimate. But it was portrayed as an existential threat to higher education and free speech in a way that was out of proportion to the actual dangers, while paving the way for far more illiberal responses, such as the Stop WOKE bill.
Much of the centrist media lathered themselves into such a state about leftist threats to speech that they relegated government threats to speech as a distant concern. This remained true even as red states passed educational gag orders. It remained true when far-right actors transparently sought to instigate conflict on campus, but media coverage instinctively treated the ensuing clashes as a function of left-wing intolerance.
How far can state officials like DeSantis go in censoring speech before we see a meaningful shift in the public understanding of where the threats are coming from? My guess is pretty far, because a lucrative political economy on campus speech has been established and will be hard to dislodge. As Weiss explains:
…campus craziness sells. It sold to readers of The Wall Street Journal just as reliably as it did to readers of The New York Times. If conservatives and progressives can unite over anything it’s that neither can resist hate-reading a story about Oberlin kids protesting the cultural appropriation of dining hall banh mi.
Campus craziness sells. Not so government censorship, at least when it is coming from the right.
The dangers were long clear for faculty working in public universities under Republican control. In the early days of 2017, I wrote the following in the Times after legislators threatened to slash University of Wisconsin funding because of a single course title.
…my colleagues and I have been given much more reason to worry about the ideological agendas of elected officials and politically appointed governing boards. Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate. One group has much more power than the other.
My concern reflected a simple point. Politicians can use the unmatched power of the state to enforce ideological conformity. DeSantis is just the most brazen of the current crop in his use of a now familiar set of tools. Stock the administration and governing boards with ideological allies rather than those who care about scholarship. Threaten the budget to scare the administrators. Promise to sue or fire individual faculty. Use supporters and friendly media to intimidate dissenters. Pass censorious policies in the name of freedom. Wave the flag and have some cute kids on hand as you do so.
After all, who is going to call you out on it?
Can We Still Govern? is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I counted eight stories where Abbot was mentioned. Three were op-eds (Stephens, McWhorter and Brooks). I found five stories about the Florida professors being told they could not testify, none in the opinion pages.