Debates Arise Over Florida Bill Mandating Assessment Surveys for Colleges and Universities

By Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson
Reporter
Patricia Tolson is an award-winning political columnist and investigative reporter who has worked for such news outlets as Yahoo! U.S. News and The Tampa Free Press. Her focus is covering political events and developments throughout the southeastern United States, which may have an impact on the nation as a whole.
June 28, 2021 Updated: June 28, 2021

On June 22, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed three bills into law. The three bills—House Bill 5, House Bill 233, and Senate Bill 1108—target how civics education and debate topics will be discussed in K-12 and in the state’s colleges and universities. The bill receiving the most attention is House Bill 233 (pdf). While advocates insist the new law will ensure “viewpoint diversity” and “intellectual freedom” at Florida colleges and universities, critics say “it sounds like fascism” because it requires “Florida students and professors to register political views with the state.”

“HB 233 requires state colleges and universities to conduct an annual assessment of viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom at their universities,” Jason Mahon, Deputy Communications Director for the Executive Office of Governor Ron DeSantis told The Epoch Times. “This is required because freedom of speech is an essential building block of our freedom as Americans and our higher education institutions must champion it, rather than chip away at it.”

“For those that are alleging this is going to be a checklist of individual members on what their political beliefs are,” Florida state Rep. Ray Rodrigues told The Epoch Times, “those are folks that have not been paying attention to the bill or the inspiration of the bill or how this has been done in any other state.”

While Rodrigues presented similar bills during his prior two years as a state representative, this was the first time he championed such a measure—as a Florida State Senator—successfully through the Florida Senate. Each time, Rodrigues said Democrats objected to it because they said they didn’t know how the data and results of the survey would be used.

“That’s the whole point of doing the survey,” Rodrigues insisted. “You can’t make policy based on anecdotes. You have to have hard data to indicate whether there’s a problem or not.”

While Rodrigues insisted a professional survey is the only way “to determine whether or not we have diversity of viewpoints, the ability to have freedom of speech and academic freedom on Florida’s college and university campuses,” critics say the law is meant to intimidate faculty and students over their political views.

Pushback Against the Law

In his June 23 story for Salon—titled, “DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state”—Brett Bachman claimed “public universities in Florida will be required to survey both faculty and students on their political beliefs and viewpoints.”

“The intent of the survey is not related to ‘registering political views,’” Mahon countered. “But rather to gather a ‘valid sample.’ There is also no expectation that every Florida student or professor would even need to participate. Those requirements do not necessitate knowing the identity of the respondent. Nor do they require everyone to participate.”

In fact, Mahon said the only thing the new law requires is that the survey be “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid.”

“Sounds like fascism to me!” Democrat state Rep. Anna Eskamani posted on Twitter, linking to Bachman’s article. “In case you’re wondering, I voted NO on this bill!!”

“Clearly she doesn’t understand history or what fascism is if she thinks an anonymous survey is fascism,” Rodrigues told The Epoch Times.

Despite the criticism, Mahon noted the idea of conducting a survey to assess campus political climate is “not unprecedented.”

Similar surveys conducted in North Carolina in 2004, 2010, and 2016 resulted in the adoption of a Campus Free Speech law in 2017, creating Article 36 of their statute 116.

The University of Colorado conducted a social climate survey (pdf) in 2014.

“If you look at how Colorado did this, they hired a professional polling firm and had the faculty work with the Board of Trustees committee to put together the survey,” Rodrigues explained. “Then the professional polling firm conducted the survey. That’s the inspiration for this.”

Rodrigues added that the University of Nebraska, the University of South Dakota, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have also conducted their own assessments.

“The interesting thing about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assessment was it wasn’t initiated by the Board of Trustees, like Colorado,” Rodrigues said. “It wasn’t initiated by the governing body, like at University of Nebraska and it wasn’t initiated by the legislature, like South Dakota and now Florida. Instead, the conservative and liberal professors on campus worked together.

In the report (pdf) “Free Expression and Constructive Dialogue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” three professors surveyed undergraduates to get a sense of the campus climate. The results of the survey, extracted from over 1,000 responses to email questionnaires, revealed that an alarming 19.2 percent of liberal students said they believe it would be appropriate to “create an obstruction, such that a campus speaker endorsing this idea could not address an audience.” Only three percent of the students who identify as conservatives felt the same way. Another troubling finding was that, of the undergraduates who reported having kept their opinions to themselves because they were afraid of retaliation, nearly 68 percent of conservatives censored themselves in this way, along with roughly 49 percent of moderates and only 24 percent of liberals.

Building Data and Facts

“The state isn’t rushing to snap judgements about Florida’s public postsecondary institutions,” Mahon insisted. “By signing this bill, Governor DeSantis is looking for data and facts, rather than narratives. The creation of this survey requires thoughtful and diligent work by the State Board of Education and Board of Governors.”

Asked if the survey already exists or whether it is still in the development stage, Rodrigues said, “that will be up to the Board of Governors,” as “they are the ones who were tasked with doing it.

“With these examples from other states, I think they’ve got a good place to begin,” he surmised. However, he clarified that they did not “mandate to them how they do that.

“The only requirements we put for the survey in the bill is that it be objective, nonpartisan and statistically valid,” he explained. “The survey will tell us what the answers to those questions are. If the answer is yes, that’s what we should publicize and celebrate. If the answer is no, it will be in the hands of the Board of Governors to determine if that’s an issue and what steps they should take to correct it.

“I’m excited that the bill passed,” he concluded. “I’m excited that the surveys are going to be done and we’re going to get that information.”

Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson
Reporter
Patricia Tolson is an award-winning political columnist and investigative reporter who has worked for such news outlets as Yahoo! U.S. News and The Tampa Free Press. Her focus is covering political events and developments throughout the southeastern United States, which may have an impact on the nation as a whole.