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Posts mischaracterize Florida law on college campus surveys

Posted at 12:31 PM, Jul 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-08 12:31:12-04

CLAIM: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill requiring college students and professors to register their political views with the state.

THE FACTS: The 2021 law requires public universities in Florida to conduct annual “intellectual freedom” surveys, but it does not mandate respondents register their political views with the government.

Criticism of the year-old Florida bill has reemerged online this week.

Author Stephen King tweeted about the bill on Tuesday, stating, “DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state.” King’s tweet mirrored language used in a June 23, 2021, headline by Salon that was changed on Wednesday to say “DeSantis signs bill requiring survey of Florida students, professors on their political views.”

An editor’s note stated that the headline was revised “to more accurately reflect the language of the bill in question.”

The initial headline, and King’s tweet, are misleading because the survey is voluntary, according to multiple legal experts who reviewed the bill, including a University of Florida law professor.

The bill requires the State Board of Education and The Board of Governors to create a survey to be administered annually by the Florida College System and the State University System that “considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and how free members of the college communities feel “to express their beliefs and viewpoints.”

The boards are required to publish the results annually, beginning Sept. 1, but officials have not said what will be done with the findings, the AP has reported.

Language included in communications to employees and students make it clear that participation was not mandatory and the survey was anonymous. “It is not required that faculty, staff and students have to register their political beliefs with the state of Florida,” said Clay Calvert, a University of Florida law professor specializing in communications law and freedom of speech. “What’s true is that state universities do have to administer surveys on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity to students, faculty and staff. So that’s where the disconnect is.”

Republican Rep. Spencer Roach, who sponsored the bill in the Florida House, called the recent interpretations calling it a mandatory registration “factually inaccurate.”

“That’s not what the statutory language said,” Roach told the AP. He explained that the law states the survey has to be objective, nonpartisan and statistically valid. “No one is requiring anyone on campus to declare their party affiliation,” Roach added.

When DeSantis signed the bill in June 2021, it didn’t include many details about the survey. Many critics voiced concern that it could be used as a way to withhold state funds from universities if data suggests there is perceived bias on campus, despite factors that may skew the responses, Calvert said.

The survey has been sent to students and employees within the state college and university systems, according to email communications reviewed by the AP.

An email with the survey that was sent to faculty at the University of Florida in April stated: “Your participation in this survey is completely voluntary. You are free to not answer any question or withdraw from the survey at any time. All responses are anonymous.”

An email sent to students at the University of Florida and other system schools used similar language. Still, a union representing faculty at Florida’s state universities discouraged members from taking it and argued that faculty members could be identified and targeted through certain questions, the AP has reported.

— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in New York contributed this report.