DeSantis and Repubs attack academic freedom Skip to content

DeSantis and Repubs attack academic freedom

It’s the same attack used by authoritarians throughout history.

3 min read
Photo by Jeremy McGilvrey / Unsplash

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is on the attack.

On May 15, and in preparation for his announcement that he is running for President of the United States, DeSantis signed a number of conservative measures. Two of them, Senate bill 266 and House bill 931, contained clear attacks on the academic freedom of teachers.

Academic Freedom is the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate in his or her academic field and to teach or publish without interference from political figures such as boards of regents or trustees, donors, or people outside the school or university. Academic freedom also protects the right of a faculty member to speak freely as a citizen outside the classroom (see American Association of University Professors, 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom for full statement).

Academic freedom means that a professor of History could present students with examples of the oppression of black Americans by laws passed by Southerners after the end of the Civil War and provide students with evidence that racist practices exist even today in our political and social institutions, a topic I addressed in an earlier column.

Academic freedom protects the right to study and openly discuss unpopular topics, whether they may be seen as conservative or liberal. It allows students and faculty to debate such topics as racism and other topics on which Americans might disagree.

This is what Governor DeSantis wants to stop as part of his current campaign to make Florida the state “where woke goes to die.” But what is dying as a result of these Florida laws is the ability of teachers to discuss any point of view which MAGA conservatives dislike or oppose.

The new DeSantis law explicitly forbids “any curriculum that ... is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” (quoted in lawyer Joyce Vance, “Civil Discourse: Bad News from Florida”- May 16, 2023)

One of these laws also outlaws any “advocacy for diversity, equity, or inclusion” (DEI) and any promotion of “political or social activism” by teachers at a state university.

Legal statements like these are designed to create fear in educational circles at all levels and mimic those found in authoritarian governments throughout history. More important, they prevent students from learning the truth, particularly in history and government courses.

Anyone with an ounce of awareness can see that “racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege” have long existed in our social and political institutions. To deny this is to defy common knowledge and to insult the many Americans who have suffered from racist and sexist discrimination.

The fact that Governor DeSantis can advocate and support such legislation, and use these laws as a platform on which to seek the Republican nomination, makes him one of the most dangerous politicians in America today. “It is open season on academics, professors, and administrators that the governor, for whatever reason, does not like,” in the words of former federal Judge Joyce Vance.

What is even scarier is that the American Association of University Professors has listed 57 similar bills in 23 states designed to undermine academic freedom and weaken tenure policies that prevent teachers from being fired for political reasons (AAUP, “The Right-Wing Attack on Higher Education: An Analysis of the State Legislative Landscape” April 3, 2023).

These 23 states spread across America, from Alabama and Mississippi in the South to Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota in the Midwest, to Oregon and Montana in the far west. Not all of these bills will become law, of course, but what is important, according to the AAUP report, is the national campaign – “a right-wing communication effort to attack public colleges and universities” for supposedly “indoctrinating students into ‘woke’ ideology.”

What they really are doing is trying to indoctrinate students into their own MAGA neo-fascist view of what they believe America ought to be. They are a very dangerous group of people.

We have only about a year and a half to stop DeSantis and his authoritarian friends from gaining more power.

If they do gain that power, we will no longer live in a democratic republic.


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Ken Wolf

Ken Wolf spent 40 years teaching European and World History, punctuated by several administrative chores, at Murray State University, retiring in 2008. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)