Florida lawmakers Wednesday passed a controversial bill to require Florida’s public universities to ask students and faculty to complete yearly surveys to identify political bias in college classrooms. It passed the Senate in a 23-15 vote and awaits the governor’s signature.
The bill would also allow students to record their professors during lectures to show evidence of political bias.
The sponsor of the House version of the legislation, Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, said he has not spoken with Republican Gov. Ron Desantis but anticipates his support.
The Republican-backed bill passed in both houses mostly along party lines. The House passed it 77-42 last month. Rep. James Bush III of Opa Locka was the only Democrat to support it. Sen. Jennifer Bradley of Orange Park and Rep. Rene Plasencia of Titusville were the only Republicans who opposed it.
The bill would measure whether “competing ideas and perspectives” are fairly presented and encouraged during class lectures. It is intended to help increase the Republican party’s appeal to young voters, who traditionally lean Democrat.
If it becomes law, the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, will be required to survey whether students, faculty and staff feel comfortable expressing their political beliefs on campus. The surveys’ responses would be anonymous and taking the survey would be optional. Results would be published each year on Sept. 1.
Roach said the surveys could uncover left-leaning political bias on campuses.
“The long term goal is to provide some guidance to policy makes on how we can ensure our universities are marketplaces for ideas, as they are intended to be,” Roach said.
The bill also prohibits universities from what it described as shielding students from views that are considered free speech by the Constitution. Shielding refers to limiting students’, faculty members’, or staff members’ access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.
Last month, Rep. Omari Hardy, D-Palm Beach, said he believed the bill’s “shielding” provision was vague and could have unexpected consequences, such as removing an administrator’s ability to limit speech that would disrupt classrooms.
“Nearly anything the administrator and professor would do to control the academic environment could be recast as shielding,” Hardy said.
Hardy said, if the bill were passed, students could be able to show videos of American soldiers being wounded overseas, discuss pro-pedophilia positions and distribute nude photographs of ex-partners on campus, if they say their actions are contributing to class discussions or are in protest.
Roach said Hardy’s criticism is outside of scope of his bill, because his examples were already legal on college campuses.
“If a student wants to show them something on their phone, whether it’s an American soldier in combat or some type of pornography, there is nothing under the law to stop them from doing that right now,” Roach said.
Karen Morian, the president of the United Faculty of Florida, a professor’s labor union, said she fears school administrators could pressure non-tenured instructors to complete the survey, disclosing their personal political beliefs. She also said the response rates from small but vocal groups of politically active students could skew results.
The bill would allow students to record lectures without a professor’s permission. However, the recordings could not be published, allowing them only for personal use or as evidence in university investigations or legal proceedings. If a recording is published, the professor could seek damages up to $200,000, according to the bill.
Morian said she doubted professors could identify students who post their recordings anonymously online, which would make seeking damages for misuse impossible. A professor’s syllabi, emails and course materials are generally treated as public records at state colleges and universities.
Roach said he has been surprised by the criticism the bill has received and views it as an extension of partisan politics.
“If a Republican sponsors a bill, the opposing party is going to vote down on it without examining its merits.” Roach said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: State Sen. Lori Berman previously and mistakenly voted affirmatively for the vote. She has since changed her vote to “no,” and this story’s vote total reflects that.