OPINION: ‘Cancel culture’ bill allows offensive speech, nonconsensual recordings at Florida universities

If HB 233 is passed in the Senate, marginalized students on college campuses would no longer get certain protections against hateful speech, and nonconsensual recordings of students and teachers would be allowed. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/Michael Rivera

A bill passed by the Florida House of Representatives on March 18 by Republican Rep. Spencer Roach and Sen. Ray Rodrigues would attempt to protect college students from social ostracism, or “cancel culture.” 

HB 233, which has now been sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee, hopes to protect students’ “intellectual freedoms” and the ability to express “diverse viewpoints,” according to the bill. If executed, the bill would allow students and potential visiting speakers to express offensive views without repercussions.

It prevents the Florida Board of Governors and the state Board of Education from prohibiting certain speech and requires state universities to partake in annual evaluations on students’ educational independence. The bill would also allow students to videotape in class without consent if they feel it would aid them in a civil or criminal case, an act which is currently illegal under Florida’s Title XLVII wiretapping laws passed in 2016. 

There are currently no laws in place preventing students from expressing these opinions, but proponents of the measure are concerned that social progressivism has silenced students with extremist views and are thus trying to use the bill to support these students.

Although our universities and colleges in Florida all claim to embrace diversity, and they can all measure and communicate each institution’s level of diversity in a number of areas, none of them measure the level of intellectual freedom or viewpoint diversity on our Florida campuses,” Rodrigues said to the Senate when introducing the bill in January. 

The discussion to form HB 233 originated when a group of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members asked to organize a march on the Florida A&M University campus and the university allowed it, since they cannot bar students from expressing their opinions. This, of course, garnered backlash because the KKK is one of the oldest and most well-known white supremacist hate groups in the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Florida A&M allowed the group to hold its event on campus and said it’s not the job of the university to shield students from certain viewpoints. This prompted Florida representatives to create HB 233 to ensure there’s never a question of whether or not controversial organizations can meet at public universities and share their opinions in the future.

Roach also attempted to justify the introduction of the bill by stating that “cancel culture” has eliminated a student’s ability to hear alternate viewpoints on their campus. 

We want to make sure on college campuses that students are being exposed to ideas that they like and also ideas that they hate, so they can learn to think critically and debate them,” Roach said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. 

There’s no problem allowing students to engage in debate and to educate themselves on their peers’ points of view, but the bill is confusing this with shutting down statements of racism, homophobia and classism.

When educators shield their students from making offensive statements, they are not “canceling” them nor barring them from supplying students with another viewpoint. Instead, they are protecting marginalized students from discrimination. 

For example, there is a large difference between preventing a student from sharing their position in support of cutting taxes, a historically Republican point, and preventing a student from sharing their opinions on banning same-sex marriage. The first is a reasonable debate that would provide Democratic students with a Republican opinion, while the latter could result in offensive speech targeted at those who identify as LGBTQ.

The bill was introduced as a preventive measure, intending to stop students from being cast out by progressive beliefs, but there are already laws in place to stop educators from pushing their opinions onto students. 

Discrimination against students, including political affiliation discrimination, is already illegal, according to the Florida Statutes and State Board of Education Rules. 

A law was also enacted in 2017 that allows citizens to contest Florida public school curriculum and was backed by the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative education reform organization, to eliminate “un-American” and “pro-Marxist” education, according to its official statement. 

Florida’s Senate Appropriations Committee, which will vote next on the bill, consists of 20 members, 12 of whom are Republicans, making it obvious it’ll be moved to the Senate floor. 

To stop the measure from progressing further, citizens should lobby against it by getting the attention of Committee Directors Sen. Kelli Stargel and Sen. Aaron Bean or Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson, who represent parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, where many USF students live. 

HB 233 must be stopped to not only prevent extremists from using oppressive, hateful speech at Florida’s universities without repercussions, but to also prohibit students from recording peers and professors without consent. 

When there are laws already in place to protect the intellectual freedom of students, the Florida Congress should be focusing on higher-priority issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and housing and food insecurities rather than whether or not their constituents can be openly offensive toward one another.