Florida Legislature backs bill targeting 'cancel culture' on college campuses

Andrew Atterbury

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s GOP-controlled Senate on Wednesday passed legislation targeting “cancel culture” on college campuses, sending the bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis after lawmakers spent years trying to get similar proposals over the hump.

By a 23-15 vote mostly along party lines, the upper chamber put the Legislature’s final stamp on a proposal that would gauge the “intellectual freedom” at 40 colleges and universities in Florida, leading to what is likely the largest-scale campus climate survey of its kind in the nation. Hailed by GOP lawmakers as a defense of free speech in traditionally liberal higher education institutions, the proposal was contested throughout session by Democrats and faculty unions who view it as “dangerous” and unnecessary overreach.

“Other states have gone down this road and they’ve actually found it educational and beneficial,” sponsor Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) said on the floor earlier in April. "I think that would be educational and beneficial in the state of Florida as well.”

State Republicans for years have sought the free speech campus survey, but the 2021 proposal expanded to include a rule allowing students to record their peers and professors during class for use in legal proceedings, and a new wrinkle meant to ensure student officers receive due process during disciplinary actions.

In the past, the survey has been a nonstarter for the upper chamber. Yet, following the 2020 election, Florida’s Senate is leaning more conservative this session and a powerful adversary of the proposal — former Republican budget chief Rob Bradley — is now gone after reaching the end of his term last year.

Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R-Fleming Island), Bradley’s wife, was the lone Republican who voted against the measure on Wednesday. There was zero debate among senators.

The Senate opted to take up the House’s take on the bill, FL HB233 (21R), which calls for colleges and universities to survey thousands of students, faculty, and staff on their political beliefs. The measure passed the House by a 77-42 party-line vote last month

Other states and even university systems have led campus climate surveys, but not to the scale that is expected to be carried out in Florida. Results from those polls have often shown that students are reluctant to respond, a note Democrats hit during session, along with the unexplored cost behind the legislation.

Democrats and faculty unions argue the bill is unnecessary, would produce skewed results and could lead to liberal professors ultimately losing their jobs. The legislation requires the state university system Board of Governors and the Board of Education to oversee the diversity surveys, but what the Legislature would eventually do with the data is unknown.

The legislation specifies that students are allowed to record lectures without consent from professor for education, but also to document a complaint against a school or for a legal case. This policy was fought hard by faculty members who fear students could post their lectures online.

Under the bill, elected or appointed student officers would be allowed direct appeals to senior school administrators when facing any discipline, suspension or removal from office. This policy would have widespread ramifications for abrupt student leadership changes like what Florida State University saw in 2020.