By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A controversial Senate proposal that would require Florida state colleges and universities to survey students about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on campus cleared its first hurdle Tuesday.
What isn’t clear is what would be done with the survey data if the bill ultimately passes.
The measure, championed by Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, would have the State Board of Education and the state university system’s Board of Governors adopt surveys that students would answer anonymously.
Rodrigues’ bill did not pass in previous years when he filed it as a member of the Florida House, and it did not get heard in the Senate during the 2020 legislative session. But after he was elected to the Senate in November, Rodrigues said he likes the proposal’s chances during the upcoming 2021 session under a “more conservative Senate that will hear bills like this.”
The Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee voted 6-4, along party lines, to approve the measure (SB 264) on Tuesday. Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, has filed a House version of the bill (HB 233).
Rodrigues cited similar surveys performed by universities in other states, like one given to students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in March. That survey found most of the nearly 1,100 participating students perceived “political liberals” to be a majority on campus. Rodrigues also pointed to instances of “mainstream” political conservatives being “shouted down” at speaking engagements.
“What we are seeing, and what we have seen across the country, are acts of cancel culture,” Rodrigues said.
He and other proponents of the bill contend there is no way to gauge how much “freedom” Florida students have to speak their minds.
“Although our universities and colleges in Florida all claim to embrace diversity, and they can all measure and communicate each institution’s level of diversity in a number of areas, none of them measure … the level of intellectual freedom or viewpoint diversity on our Florida campuses,” Rodrigues said.
But some representatives of higher-education faculty members oppose the measure. United Faculty of Florida president Karen Morian says there already exists “full campus access to the right of free speech, that’s been tested time and again and found to be strong.”
“We don’t think there’s anything that needs to be fixed with regard to that,” Morian told The News Service of Florida in an interview Monday. “As academics, we work to ensure open debate on campuses and in the classroom. We do prioritize facts and evidence, and then we address theories where there’s evidence to support them.”
Senate Democrats said they want to know what the Republican-led legislature would do with survey data that would get collected — something that is not addressed in the proposal.
“I’m concerned that this is not something that the university can control, but just general young people and how they trend in certain directions,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat who serves on the Education Committee.
Polsky raised concerns that only politically involved students would bother to answer the surveys, which she said would likely favor students with left-leaning ideas.
“The survey could skew more toward the liberal side, which there is nothing wrong with that. That is the beauty of youth and growing up and trying to figure things out,” Polsky said. “So, again, I don’t know what would come of this survey. What would be implemented?”
Critics also raised concerns about parts of the bill such as provision that would prevent colleges and universities from “shielding” students from speech protected by the first amendment.
“Does this mean that a university cannot say at all that a neo-Nazi group cannot come on campus?” asked Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach.
Rodrigues said his measure would prevent schools from outright banning groups from campus, however uncomfortable it might make other students. He acknowledged university presidents are responsible for ensuring student safety, so school leaders could require the groups to pick up the tab for security costs.
“I don’t believe that a university can say to an organization, ‘You are not welcome here because we don’t like your ideas.’ I think that is outside the boundaries of what higher education is supposed to be about.” Rodrigues said.
Another piece of the measure that raised questions would allow students to record video and sound of professors’ classroom lectures.
Matthew Lata, a professor who is the United Faculty of Florida’s chapter president at Florida State University, said the provision “raises serious questions about intellectual property rights,” warning that students could post recordings on the internet.
“I mean, those lectures are what faculty sell, that’s their stock and trade. And by virtue of the fact that they say it in the classroom, that should not mean that it should be disseminated any way the student chooses to do,” Lata said.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Rodrigues said he is open to changing that part of the bill as it moves through the Senate.
“That’s a legitimate concern that we will address at the next committee stop,” Rodrigues told the News Service.