Some USF professors were relieved following the injunction of the Stop W.O.K.E. Act on Thursday due to its possible effects on higher education.
Spearheaded by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the bill limited workplace and classroom discussions of racism and privilege, according to NPR. It was blocked by Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker who said in a 139 page order the First Amendment prohibited the state from muzzling its professors.
The bill would prohibit discussions that placed “guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” on individuals due to their race, color, sex or national origin, according to the Florida House of Representatives bill analysis.
It was rewarding to see Walker was on the side of freedom of speech, according to senior political science and philosophy major Sam Rechek, who filed one of the lawsuits against the state. Alongside associate professor Adriana Novoa, Rechek said he went to court to defend freedom of speech.
“We should have these broad protections for freedom of speech because we need to be able to debate the merits of views,” Rechek said. “You don’t eliminate views by silencing them. The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech.”
In order to promote discussion on the First Amendment, Rechek created the First Amendment Forum, a student organization on campus. The organization aims to “advocate for student rights policy reform” and “help cultivate a community that embraces the merit of the First Amendment,” according to its mission statement.
Associate professor Brook Sadler said the Stop W.O.K.E. Act would have a multitude of effects on higher education, including the intimidation of professors. She said the legislation was written in a vague and ambiguous manner that makes it hard for professors to know if they are violating the law.
One has to be able to read between the lines in order to understand the intent behind the legislation, Sadler said.
Students can also sense the chilling effect on faculty, according to Sadler. Both the post-tenure review bill and Stop W.O.K.E. Act will further limit classroom speech which was already declining, Sadler said.
A decline in students’ responsiveness can be attributed to larger issues such as culture wars that are related to new Florida statutes that limit speech and constrain educators for “political purposes,” she said.
The bill is also not as neutral as it pretends to be, according to associate professor Richard Manning. It takes a side on a contested political issue such as affirmative action and does not prevent indoctrination like DeSantis claims it does, Manning said, so long as the indoctrination is in the state’s favored viewpoint.
Manning said professors will be unable to educate students properly on the “salient” facts of the country’s history and how institutions work. People would not have the tools to understand the experiences of those who have suffered from injustice due to their race, ethnicity and sex, Manning said. Those who have been historically oppressed will also lack the tools to express their own experiences.
“It’s a way of keeping the relatively disempowered and disenfranchised relatively disempowered and disenfranchised,” Manning said.
Though relieved by the injunction, the post-tenure review bill is more concerning than the Stop W.O.K.E. Act for assistant professor David Ponton. The proposal may place a requirement for tenured faculties at state universities to undergo a post-tenure review every five years, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Ponton said good teachers will continue to do good teaching regardless of the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. Those who teach about race and inequality and are passionate about it will not violate the law because they never discussed race in the way the act prohibits, Ponton said.
“[The Stop W.O.K.E. Act] is not a response to anything that actual teachers are doing,” Ponton said. “It’s a response to the moral panic caused by a certain group of political operatives.”
Faculty will be more affected by the post-tenure review bill because it will infringe upon academic freedom, according to Ponton. It will affect the types of risks faculty take on research and what kinds of topics that they are willing to teach, he said. Tenure will also lose its value by making professors vulnerable to the “whims of politics,” according to Ponton.
The bill is also redundant given that tenured faculty are already reviewed each year, Sadler said. Both before and after tenure, professors compile a substantive review of their work, teaching and research. The post-tenure review adds an “absurd layer” of lost resources and energy, Sadler said.
Faculty are largely united in their opposition to the post-tenure review, but many feel powerless to object due to fear of penalization, according to Sadler.
It will also prevent talented faculty and students from coming to Florida, according to Manning. People will go to other places where tenure is secure, so recruiting and retaining faculty will become significantly harder, he said. Students will then suffer because they will not have access to “cutting edge of research and instruction,” according to Manning.
Florida’s reputation in higher education will also begin to devalue, Manning said.
“A degree from a Florida institution will be less valuable than it otherwise would be,” Manning said. “That’s especially unfortunate, since exactly no evidence has been provided that there is any genuine problem that the bill is needed to address.”
It was only a matter of time for legislation like this to be passed, according to visiting professor Kirsten England. After the removal of tenure for K-12 teachers in 2011, England said the post-tenure review bill was an inevitability.
The reform left Florida teachers very vulnerable and exacerbated a widespread teacher exodus, according to the Florida Education Association (FEA). It is possible the state will see a similar teacher exodus after the passing of the post-tenure review bill, according to England.
Both legislations are in search of problems that do not exist, according to Novoa. There is no evidence that students suffer from ideological discrimination, she siad.
Professors are being portrayed as evil people who are doing evil things, Novoa said. The law assumes students are “malleable and gullible” enough that they follow whatever the teacher says and that is not an accurate reflection of what happens in the classroom, Novoa said.
“We all come to the classroom and we all learn from each other. I just obviously need to offer leadership in that process,” Novoa said.
Both students and faculty have to remain persistently vigilant to protect their rights of freedom of speech, according to Rechek. They must advocate for the non-partisan idea of the First Amendment to prevent similar legislation from being passed in the future, he said.
“Professors genuinely have to feel empowered and free to bring up whatever issues they find relevant to the educational environment,” Rechek said. “That’s the essence of academic freedom, at least the way I see it.”