Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is going to destroy free speech in order to save it, it seems.
Over the last year DeSantis has championed a law that limits classroom discussions of LGBTQ identities, banned teaching and learning of particular perspectives on race, enacted a measure barring certain diversity training in schools and workplaces, and replaced the leadership of a small, progressive public college with conservative ideologues and religious leaders charged with overhauling the campus’s politics.
DeSantis has also sought to shut down a drag show, citing a 1947 legal precedent banning “men impersonating women.” He has proposed to challenge the landmark Supreme Court decision on libel, narrowing the scope of press freedom.
As recently as 2019, DeSantis styled himself as a First Amendment defender. During his first gubernatorial run in 2018 he pledged on his campaign web site to defend “First Amendment speech rights against those in academia, media and politics who seek to silence conservatives.”
The following year he announced an agreement among the state’s 40 public colleges and universities to adopt a free speech pledge modeled on the “Chicago Principles,” the University of Chicago’s admirable and influential manifesto in defense of open discourse. The Chicago statement, the result of work done by a committee on free expression convened at the college in 2014, proclaims that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.”
Over the last three years, however, DeSantis has turned his back on free speech in the name of pushing back against ideas he finds contemptible. He has railed against progressive curricula and academic theories as “an attempt to really delegitimize our history and delegitimize our institutions” and urged his supporters to “think deeply about if we are a disfavored class based on our principles, based on having conservative views,”
DeSantis is not wrong to point out that progressive orthodoxies can sometimes stifle opposing views. But a principle isn’t a principle unless it’s extended to all, and DeSantis now seems bent on using the power of his office to apply free speech protections only to the ideas he supports.
Indeed, in pushing back against what he decries as wokeness run amok, DeSantis has embraced the very tactics he once decried, putting the weight of government power behind efforts to repress viewpoints that offend him and his supporters.
DeSantis’s tactics are winning adherents in Florida and fueling momentum for a national campaign. To blunt their appeal, it is essential to understand what the governor and his supporters are mobilizing against. DeSantis has fanned fears that progressives have taken control of schools and universities, imposing an ideological agenda that DeSantis argues is at odds with the values of most Floridians.
The new visibility and appreciation of transgender and non-binary identities and rights has raised important questions about pronouns, bathrooms, sports and the autonomy of adolescents. The 2020 murder of George Floyd spurred schools, colleges and companies to take new steps aimed to root out the entrenched, stubborn legacy of racism in their institutions. These are positive developments, vital to bringing about a more inclusive and equal society.
In some cases, though, efforts to promote equity cross over into censoriousness. Just last week Roald Dahl’s publisher announced plans to scrub beloved works like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda” of references that could be construed as offensive to the overweight, wig-wearers or people with horse-like features. In 2015, a student performance of “The Vagina Monologues” by Eve Ensler (now known as V) was cancelled on the basis that the play itself was transphobic because the script failed to acknowledge that not all women have vaginas.
Some curricula and programs offer simplistic, monolithic or flat-out illiberal ideas about racial issues, dismissing challenging questions or alternative perspectives as rooted in racism, reeking of undeserved privilege or otherwise beyond the pale.
In a highly publicized incident at the University of Central Florida in 2020, Professor Charles Negy was fired after his tweets about “Black privilege” prompted campus protests. While the university claimed he was guilty of misconduct, an arbitrator found no just cause for his determination and ordered him reinstated. The incident seemed to form part of a broader pattern at the University.
Last year a federal appeals court struck down the campus’ discriminatory harassment policy, citing its “astonishing breadth—and slipperiness.” The court found it “clear that a reasonable student could fear that his speech would get him crossways with the univ