Florida House Bill 837, dubbed “The Academic Bill of Rights” by its supporters, is slowly making its way through the state House of Representatives.
The seven-page bill, introduced by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, would limit “controversial matter” in the classroom and ensure that students “will have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion.” A matching bill is in the state Senate, Senate Bill 2126.
Baxley said that though the problem the bill addresses does not run rampant, he does “think there are niches of totalitarianism with people who use their grade books to punish people who aren’t ‘politically correct.'”
Opponents of the bill warn that it is more dangerous than it looks.
“It presents itself as a shiny red apple that defends academic freedom, but there are razor blades in that apple,” said Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida and a philosophy professor at University of Florida.
“It is quite a change from the days of my youth when the left wing was trying to force their way into the classroom; now the right wing is trying to force their way into the classroom,” USF Faculty Union President Roy Weatherford said at the last faculty senate meeting.
Nowhere in the bill is “controversial matter” clearly defined, which has some professors concerned.
“Who gets to decide what is appropriate in the classroom and what is not?” asked Weatherford at the same meeting. “The judgment as to what is intellectually appropriate for classroom use is and must be a judgment made by the faculty. Whenever the government tries to usurp that judgment, they are flying in the face of academic freedom.”
Baxley compared professors opposed to the bill to rebellious adolescents.
“‘This is my class and my world, you don’t give me any guidance,'” Baxley said, imitating a professor arguing against the bill. “‘But, Mr. Legislature, I want my bills paid … but don’t say anything to me about what I do.'”
Professors are not alone in their opposition of the legislation.
“We do not believe this legislation is necessary since the AAUP professional guidelines for faculty are widely used nationally and protect against these same concerns,” said Colleges and Universities Chancellor for the Florida Department of Education Debra Austin in a written statement.
Under the bill, professors would have to teach all theories relating to a topic if a student requested it.
The most commonly used example of this is the theory of evolution; the bill would require creationism to be taught alongside evolution at all times.
The bill’s sponsor, Baxley, often cites an undergraduate experience at FSU dealing with evolution as a reason he sponsored this bill.
Baxley claims that in 1970 he was subjected to a “tirade” on evolution being right and creationism being wrong. He says that is a situation that students shouldn’t have to be put into.
The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down similar bills in the past, and many believe that if this bill does pass through the Legislature, it will swiftly be brought to the courts.
Creationism is not the only thing the bill might force into classrooms. Other topics mentioned in the ongoing debate include the idea’s that the Holocaust never happened. The Earth is flat and the U.S. Astronauts never really landed on the moon.
“This bill essentially, in my opinion, forces public universities to teach false and extremist viewpoints,” said Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
The bill would also open the door to students who feel they have been slighted in class because of their political or religious beliefs to sue their professors and schools.
“This bill would introduce litigation into the classrooms, which would be disastrous,” Auxter said.
Baxley is not concerned with the possibility of lawsuits.
“People get sued all the time; people could sue you for anything,” Baxley said. “Welcome to the world of accountability.”
Baxley thinks most issues would be dealt with through things like grievance committees rather than expensive court battles.
The bill has been passed through the Choice and Innovation Committee, where the votes followed party lines, with the six Republican members of the committee beating the two Democratic members.
If that trend continues, the bill will pass easily in the Republican-controlled House.
According to Baxley, the bill has just been moved out of the Colleges and Universities Committee and into the Education Council.
The Senate equivalent of the bill has not moved from its original committee.
The bill comes from a template provided by David Horowitz, a noted conservative columnist who backs the Students for Academic Freedom.
Other state Legislatures have had similar bills from that template introduced, but Florida seems to be taking the bill more seriously than any other state.