Ron DeSantis is trying to crack down on the “indoctrination” of college students.
The Florida governor, who is clearly positioning himself for 2024, just signed a law that includes a process for finding out the political views of students.
There is little question that academia has been a liberal bastion for decades. From left-leaning faculty to students protesting right-wing speakers on campus, conservatives have felt unwelcome at major colleges and universities. There is no affirmative action for this minority. And that makes it a nice culture-war issue for DeSantis.
“We want our universities to be focused on critical thinking and academic rigor. We do not want them as basically hotbeds for stale ideology,” he told reporters.
Under the new law, public universities must assess their “viewpoint diversity” every year. And that will be based on an opinion survey in which students will be asked about their political opinions.
That sounds troubling — but there’s a catch.
While Florida can mandate the survey, it can’t require students to take it. One expert told the Washington Post that this could lead to participation bias, with students who feel bias against their views more likely to respond.
During the legislative debate, the Miami Herald noted, some Democrats questioned whether faculty members might be promoted or fired based on their political beliefs.
While the statute doesn’t spell out a penalty, the Republican governor suggested that state funding to the offending schools could be cut.
He says the goal is to prevent the colleges from becoming “hotbeds for stale ideology,” that they are now “more intellectually repressive environments” with other viewpoints “shunned or even suppressed.”
Two weeks ago, DeSantis barred public schools from teaching critical race theory — more specifically, that racism is “embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of White persons.”
Whether these are pressing educational problems or red meat for GOP voters depends on your point of view. But DeSantis, an ally of Donald Trump, gets an A for drawing national coverage as he presses these and other hot buttons. This is the same guy who turned a demonstrably unfair “60 Minutes” piece about vaccine distribution into a widely covered attack on the CBS program.
Student free speech surfaced in a very different context this week, at the Supreme Court.
In an 8-1 ruling, the court upheld the right of Brandi Levy, a former Pennsylvania high school student, to express herself on Snapchat with ample vulgarity.
“F— school F— softball F— cheer F— everything,” she snapped, complete with a middle-finger photo.
Levy, then 14, was a JV cheerleader who was ticked off at not making the varsity squad. After her digital outburst, the school kicked her out of the cheerleading program for a year. Her parents filed the lawsuit.
The court said there may be times when schools are entitled to penalize students for outside behavior but didn’t spell out the circumstances.
This wasn’t exactly a high-minded battle over a student newspaper’s right to publish, or the right of high school kids to protest for Black Lives Matter or against a president.
But in the Snapchat era, it upheld the freedom to tell the world to buzz off.