TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed several education-focused bills this week, including one to protect what the state calls the “expression of diverse viewpoints” at state colleges and universities by surveying students on how they feel their freedoms are protected on campus.
Under HB 233, signed by DeSantis on June 22, the Florida Board of Education will now require Florida colleges to survey students every year and assess “the intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” at each institution.
The BOE will be required to select or create an objective, nonpartisan and statistically valid survey for each institution to use, and determine the extent that competing ideas are presented to the college’s community. In this case, college community refers to students, faculty and staff. The survey will check how free they feel to express their own beliefs and viewpoints while on campus and in the classroom.
Under the new law, assessments will need to be ready for use and published by Sept. 1 of each year, starting in 2022. The board will be allowed to adopt additional rules to implement this new surveying requirement.
HB 233 also adds new definitions to Florida’s statutes, defining what intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity is, as well as what it means to shield students from those diverse views.
Now, by law, intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity means that students, faculty and staff must be able to be exposed to a variety of ideological and political perspectives.
In addition, the new law adds the new term “shield” which, in this context, the state has defined as “to limit students,’ faculty members’ or staff members’ access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.” The addition of shield is two-fold, in terms of the direction and intent of the law.
HB 233 explicitly states that “the State Board of Education may not shield students, faculty or staff at Florida College System institutions from free speech protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
The state has now also added to the statutory definition of what the right to free-speech activities means. Going forward, expressive activities considered free speech will also include faculty research, lectures, writings and commentary, whether or not they have been published.
However, defamatory and commercial speech, are not included in free-speech activities, as described by HB 233. Defamatory speech was added to the law, regarding free speech rights.
Students will now be allowed to record video or audio of class lectures for their own personal educational use, as well as in connection to a complaint made to the higher education institution where they made the recording, or as evidence in a criminal or civil proceeding. Recorded lectures will not be allowed to be published without the consent of the lecturer.
Anyone who has published video or audio recorded in a classroom that violates the consent requirements can be made to pay damages to the recorded individual, including court costs and attorney fees, up to $200,000.
HB 233 also sets guidelines, rights of students facing allegations, and expectations of conduct for the disciplinary hearings, including the right to an impartial hearing officer, and the right against self-incrimination, among others.
Student governments will be required, by law, to adopt internal procedures that provide elected or appointed SGA officers who have been disciplined, suspended or removed from office the right to appeal those decisions directly with the vice president of student affairs, or an equivalent senior administrator chosen to hear those appeals.
Schools in Florida will have to adopt codes of conduct and penalties for alleged violations of the new law’s free speech protections. They will have to be published publicly on each institution’s website.
Violating the new guidelines may entitle someone to damages, court costs and reasonable attorney fees, which may only be paid from non-state funds.
Should an alleged violation occur, universities and colleges will have to provide due process protections for students and student organizations, as well as preserve the right to timely written notice of the accusations. The codes of conduct must also require that the institutions provide students with the alleged violation and allow them to respond in time for any potential disciplinary hearing, as well as a citation detailing the specific provision of the code of conduct at issue.
In this case, the state defines “timely written notice” as seven business days before a disciplinary hearing occurs. At least five days before the disciplinary proceeding, the student or organization must be given a list of all known witnesses that have provided, or will provide information, for or against them.
The newly-signed HB 233 goes along with some of the governor’s other legislative pushes and approvals over the past year, working to fight against what he would call censorship of more conservative ideology. It’s similar to the legislation he signed “cracking down” on Big Tech companies to stop them from deplatforming political candidates in the state..