Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a news conference on Monday, May 15, 2023, at New College of Florida before signing a bill that banned state funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at state universities. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants Florida schools to be bastions of free speech where all views can be expressed.

“Education is about the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of ideology or the advancement of a political agenda,” he said in January. He says he’s working to stop “intellectually repressive environments” that suppress certain opinions at universities.

Yet the governor’s brand as a defender of free expression is increasingly under attack from critics on the left and right who accuse him of saying one thing and doing another.

They pointto his push to restrict classroom discussion on race and gender, defund diversity programs and make it easier to ban certain books from schools.

More recently, he’s been criticized for banning Students for Justice in Palestine from university campuses. The group has led rallies against Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

“It’s utter hypocrisy for someone who railed against left-wing cancel culture,” rival Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy said of DeSantis on X. “Free speech means nothing if it just means protecting the speech we agree with. Free speech rights are really about protecting the speech we disagree with most.”

The nonpartisan First Amendment Watch, a project of New York University, has a page on its website called “Florida v. Free Speech.”

Critics may have more fodder after Wednesday,when the state university system’s Board of Governors considers a rule supporting legislation pushed by DeSantis this year. It would prohibit schools from promoting “topics that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs, positions, or norms.”

That kind of wording could stifle discussion on topics as basic as Black History Month, according to higher education leaders like Gerard Solis, general counsel for the University of South Florida. He and others have raised concerns that the rule is too broad.

Some experts consider it a sign of the fractured times.

Liberals and conservatives have been guilty of trying to silence others’ perspectives, said Susan MacManus, a longtime Florida political analyst.

The partisan divide is so wide that people no longer agree on definitions, she said. “Tolerance and compromise are two words that have gone by the wayside, yet they were the foundations of our democracy.”

An open debate, with exceptions

DeSantis and his team have long said that diverse views are critical to a vibrant democracy, but they often focus on protecting their own point of view. They have complained, for example, that conservative Republican opinions are suppressed on the state’s public campuses.

Ray Rodrigues, who overseesthe state university system, once suggested that the answer is to let all flowers bloom.

“The most effective way to deal with a neo-Nazi group that comes on campus is for nobody to attend the rally,” he said in 2021while serving as a state senator. “But what we’ve seen across the country is acts of cancel culture — people who feel the need to shout it down.”

As chancellor, though, Rodrigues issued the ban of Students for Justice in Palestine, saying the group violated Florida law by offering “material support” for terrorism — a position DeSantis has restated on national television.

So far, DeSantis and Rodrigues have based the ban on a five-page “toolkit” from the group’s national chapter that advised people on how to protest against Israel during a “national day of resistance” last month. The two officials have staked their position on a sentence stating: “We as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”

In an Oct. 24 letter to university presidents, Rodrigues said state officials were “using all tools at our disposal to crack down on campus demonstrations that delve beyond protected First Amendment speech into harmful support for terrorist groups.”

His office did not respond to follow-up questions, instead offering links to recent statements.

A few days later, DeSantis addressed the issue in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying, “this is not cancel culture.” He said Students for Justice in Palestine had a right to demonstrate, but they “linked themselves to Hamas and so we absolutely decertified them. … It’s not a First Amendment issue. That’s a material support to terrorism issue.”

Banning the group based on wording in its toolkit “sounds illegal to me,” said Paul Ortiz, former president of the UF faculty union, who earlier this month spoke at a pro-Palestinian protest. “It’s a clear abridgment of student rights.”

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association teachers union,said the ban did not surprise him.

“What we’ve seen from the governor over and over again, in both K-12 and higher education, is, ‘Do as I say and not as I do,’” Spar said. “It’s not surprising he’s saying, ‘I want this to be the free state of Florida, but not if you disagree with me.’”

Spar noted that DeSantis blasted the pro-Palestine student group but did not publicly speak against neo-Nazis who recently rallied outside Disney World and in other spots across Florida.

And while DeSantis has railed against indoctrination in schools, his administration approved the use of videos from a group backed by conservative radio host Dennis Prager, who has acknowledged his materials are designed to indoctrinate children on conservative positions. The topics range from climate change to race, and some are based on the Bible.

When DeSantis was asked on “Meet the Press” why he didn’t come out immediately against the neo-Nazi protests, he dismissed the criticism as the work of rivals trying to score points against him. “Of course we condemn that,” DeSantis said, adding that his record on supporting Jewish citizens “is second to none.”

A change in tone

Since 2018, state lawmakers have targeted Florida’s higher education system for reform. They passed the Campus Free Expression bill that year, prohibiting schools from restricting speech to certain areas of campus or disrupting organized events.

The following year, the Board of Governors adopted a free expression statement and civil discourse initiative. It stood for “full and open discourse and the robust exchange of ideas,” even those that people found “abhorrent.”

By 2021, however, the tone shifted with legislation aimed more at restricting what people could say. A “viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom” law mandated surveys to assess political leanings on every campus — a measure that stoked fears that dissenting opinions could be muted.

The following year, lawmakers passed the Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop Woke act. It prohibits the teaching of concepts that cause “guilt, anguish or other psychological distress” related to race, color, national origin or sex because of actions “committed in the past.” Court challenges have kept the law from being fully enforced.

This year saw the passage of Senate Bill 266, which curbs spending on diversity initiatives and regulates what can be included in general education college courses.

The change of direction has some heads spinning.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit civil liberties group, worked with the state on the 2018 legislation with the intent of promoting free speech on college campuses. It was positive step, said Joe Cohn, the group’s legislative and policy director.

But last year, the group filed a lawsuit on behalf of professors over the Individual Freedom Act. And this year, Cohn attended several legislative hearings, warning that bills like SB 266 would run afoul of federal law.

Cohn calls them “Stop Woke 2.0″ and says they contradict other state policies.

While the regulations refer only to government speech, he says the state argues that the law applies to faculty expression in and out of the classroom.

Protecting civil liberties is important, but legislators need to ensure their laws are constitutional, Cohn said. “The state of Florida’s record is not looking good on that.”

Protesters march along Fowler Avenue in support of the Palestinian people on Oct. 15 in Tampa, near the University of South Florida campus. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine were among the organizers of the demonstration.
Protesters march along Fowler Avenue in support of the Palestinian people on Oct. 15 in Tampa, near the University of South Florida campus. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine were among the organizers of the demonstration. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

He and others expect these issues to be decided by the courts.

Max Eden, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, points to DeSantis’ ban of Students for Justice in Palestine as a key area for legal exploration. Did members of that group provide actual material support to Hamas? Or was it an instance of “college kids saying stuff?” he said.

In the broader debate over free speech, it could prove a “fascinating edge case,” Eden said. “I very much look forward to seeing what happens with this in the courts. I expect judges to split on this.”

He explained that critics might have a relatively strong case against the government’s move to restrict fields of study at colleges and universities, while challenges to rules governing what may be taught in public school classrooms are less likely to succeed.

The fact remains, though, that regardless of legal opinions, Americans disagree on fundamental ideas undergirding civil society, Cohn and others said.

Whether DeSantis is viewed as hypocritical “rests on someone’s broader political views, and how they interpret some of these things in the first place,” Eden said. “A lot of it is more based on partisan interpretation of actions than it is profound dissonance of principle.”

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.