College Journalists Say Desantis' Survey of "Viewpoint Diversity" Could Hurt Student Media

Gov. Ron DeSantis says bias on campus "indoctrinates" college students.
Gov. Ron DeSantis says bias on campus "indoctrinates" college students. Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images
Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill calling for an annual assessment of "intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity" at the state's public colleges and universities. The law, which goes into effect today, is already facing pushback.

The Republican-backed higher education bill, HB 233, is a response to what DeSantis has framed as liberal or left-leaning bias in colleges across the United States. According to the governor, that bias "indoctrinates" students and bars them from thinking for themselves.

As a controversial solution, HB 233 instructs the state to document on a yearly basis any alleged bias at each of the state's public universities.

The new law will have Florida's Board of Education create or approve annual surveys for distribution to all students, staff, and faculty of public colleges and universities that will attempt to gauge which ideologies predominate in communication on campus, which are outshined, and whether students and staff feel safe to express their opinions on school grounds. The law will require the distribution of surveys, but there will be no requirement for students and staff to fill them out. Beginning September 1, 2022, the results will be publicly released and analyzed by the state on an annual basis.

HB 233 prevents colleges from "shielding" students, faculty, or staff from "ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive." Another provision authorizes students (with some exceptions) to make video and audio recordings of lectures and other classroom activities, which could later be used in court. It's still unclear how the ideological survey results might be used, but scholars and students alike fear the state will cut funding for colleges and universities with which DeSantis and Florida's Republican-led legislature find fault.

Student journalists who rely on funding from their institutions to sustain their news outlets believe that could mean an inability to continue their work as campus watchdogs.

"Depending on what score we get or however they [measure the surveys], it could affect our possibility to fund our operation, keep students informed, and grow as journalists," says Valentina Palm, editor-in-chief of Florida International University's newspaper, Panther NOW. "We're scared of what comes next."

Student journalists, despite the prefix, are journalists. One of the few distinctions separating student journalists from those working in the industry is that students are offered far fewer protections under the First Amendment. Censorship of student journalism goes woefully underreported, in large part owing to Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that granted public school administrators the right to censor their school's newspaper content if they deem it inappropriate for publication.

In Florida, the Student Press Law Center has for years attempted to pass so-called New Voices legislation, which would counteract the restrictions put in place by Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, but the state has yet to budge. Now, HB 233's potential threat to student journalism could materialize in a matter of months.

"We can't expect local newspapers to cover everything that happens on campus — that's our job," Palm says. "If [the state] finds a way to punish us, it will not only reduce our efforts to be the watchdog of the university for the good and the bad, but also our relationship with the audiences."

Both Palm and Jordan Coll, news director at Panther NOW, expressed a lack of surprise regarding the bill, as well as suspicion about its timing.

"It wasn't a shock to us that something like this was happening, because at the end of the day, DeSantis is claiming that colleges are indoctrinating their students and removing certain curriculums," Coll tells New Times. He has spoken with Panther NOW's staff of 126 students at length about the bill and said their reactions seemed unified: "It's a really questionable bill. And why now?"

As rumors swirl that DeSantis has his eye on the presidential ticket come 2024, political insiders say the governor seems to be championing legislation that plays to the Republican base and earns him headlines in national media.

"As governor, DeSantis has consistently pushed legislation that appeals to the conservative base and Trump, including a measure aimed at reigning [sic] in Big Tech and a bill that restricts some voting access in the state," Politico noted in a recent story about DeSantis' political ambitions.

Conversation surrounding free speech on campus has increased in recent years. A 2018 national survey conducted by WGBH News in Boston found that 77 percent of respondents believed college campuses leaned left politically; 79 percent of that sample viewed the purported imbalance as a problem.

In recent years, the topic has been flung to the forefront by GOP leaders. Coll, Panther NOW's news director, says HB 233 and other recent Florida bills that address communism and critical race theory might be a grasp at earning the governor more party support.

"This trend is really questionable. It was done in a matter of weeks, not months," Coll says. "And again, the first instance where he signed the antitrust bill with the Big Tech companies at FIU at a public university was — I think it was a clear statement that he was making."

Student journalists at other Florida universities have also connected the dots between HB 233 and the larger conversation about free speech on campus. At the University of Florida, Republican-aligned student organizations like Young Americans for Freedom and UF College Republicans have long spoken out against purported liberal bias on campus. In recent years, UF has hosted a number of controversial speakers who have pushed the debate to center stage.

"I know when Donald Trump Jr. came to campus, there was a political fever around campus," says Tristan Wood, a reporter for Fresh Take Florida, a student-run news service at UF. "There was a large demonstration and a counter-demonstration outside of [the event]. The conversation about what political speech should be allowed on campus was definitely there."

And, just like that debate, student journalists fear those with the loudest voices will dominate the ideological surveys. Because completion of the surveys is voluntary, they're concerned that students with extreme positions will be more likely to participate, skewing each university's results.

"We know that politically active people on campus, regardless of what [side of the] political aisle they are on, are going to be a lot more likely to engage in those surveys and a lot more likely to go out of their way for political based content," Wood says. "Are those politically active students going to be the ones more likely to engage in these surveys and, with their political bias, influence the surveys one way or another to make it so we won't really get a good idea of what the true environment is like on campuses?" [pdf-1]
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