Academic Freedom

DeSantis Defunds Diversity and Inclusion Programs in Florida Public Higher Education

FILE PHOTO: DeSantis hosts a rally in Tampa after primary
In a Reuters file photo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks after the primary election for the midterms during the “Keep Florida Free Tour” at Pepin’s Hospitality Centre in Tampa, Florida, Aug. 24, 2022. (Reuters/Octavio Jones)

By Susanna Granieri

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation May 15 that defunds diversity, equity and inclusion, (DEI), programs at the state’s public colleges and universities, as well as limits discussions of racism and sexism in required courses and student activities.

Senate Bill 266 prohibits discussion of “identity politics” in required general education courses, which includes “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.” The legislation also limits fundings to student activities that may advocate for “diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.”

At the signing ceremony at New College of Florida in Sarasota, DeSantis stood behind a podium which read “Florida: The Education State,” and said “DEI is better viewed as standing for ‘discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination,’ and that has no place in our public institutions.”

“If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley,” he said.

SB 266 is a version of House Bill 999, which notably proposed the removal of degree programs focused on gender, race, or other “belief systems” from public higher education institutions. While SB 266 left out the provision removing specific degree programs, it did maintain HB 999’s restrictions on general education courses and funding for student activities.

Previous: An ‘Assault on the First Amendment’: Recent Legislation in DeSantis’ Florida

The United Faculty of Florida, (UFF) — a union of more than 25,000 faculty members from primary, secondary and higher education levels across the state — advocated against SB 266 by connecting with student organizations and legislators, according to Nicole Morse, the organization’s chair of government relations.

The earlier version of the bill, HB 999, was “much more extreme,” Morse said. Morse added that the advocacy of UFF was crucial to “pushing the legislature to take a slightly less draconian stance in the bill that they finally passed.”

Despite this, Morse said, “it’s still an extremely aggressive bill that opened up a wide range of both prohibited speech and compelled speech because it requires history to be taught in a particular way, it requires professors to assign texts from the Western canon, etc.”

Undergraduate students are required to take five general education courses, one in each of five core subject areas: communication, mathematics, social science, humanities and natural sciences. SB 266 states that if a student has previously completed a general education course that is now subject to removal under the legislation, the course is still applicable to a student’s progress toward a degree and does not need to be retaken.

The legislation requires that general education courses adhere to the Florida Educational Equity Act, which includes a section that is central to the academic provision of the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees Act, coined the “Stop WOKE” Act by DeSantis. This provision was blocked by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in November, who described the law as “positively dystopian” and “antithetical to academic freedom.”

“Neither the State of Florida’s authority to regulate public school curriculum, nor its interest in preventing race or sex discrimination can support its weight,” Judge Walker wrote in the decision. “Nor does the First Amendment tolerate it.”

The forbidden concepts defined in the Florida Educational Equity Act bar certain discussions and lessons that center around race, color, sex or national origin. The concepts include promoting that one race, color, sex or national origin is morally superior to another; and the idea that because someone is of a certain race, color, sex or national origin they are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” 

SB 266 “doubles down on the Stop WOKE Act,”  wrote Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, (FIRE). “Bans on ideas in the collegiate setting are unconstitutional, illiberal, and shortsighted. Prohibiting ideas in the name of freedom is not freedom at all. It is censorship.”

FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh says the foundation is “monitoring the regulations the university system proposes with the expectation that they will not take steps to enforce the Stop WOKE Act.”

“We also expect Florida’s universities and colleges to avoid enforcing the provisions of the new law that violate the First Amendment,” he added.

Aside from restricting the curriculum of general education courses, SB 266 also prohibits the spending of state or federal funds on campus activities that “promote support, or maintain any programs or campus activities” that violate the Florida Educational Equity Act; or “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion or promote or engage in political or social activism.”

Steinbaugh said that “no legislation can authorize state officials to violate the First Amendment.” 

“That includes provisions that would restrict the ability of students, student organizations, and faculty to organize or attend events that promote viewpoints that the state government disfavors,” he said. Viewpoint discrimination represents a fundamental violation of First Amendment rights because the government is not permitted to favor or disfavor viewpoints expressed in the marketplace of ideas.

SB 266 does state that fees paid by students in support of student-led organizations can be used regardless of the specific event’s content, so long as such events follow the respective institution’s policies. But Steinbaugh says the legislation still “reaches other funding and resources that may implicate First Amendment considerations.”

Public colleges and universities that do not adhere to the requirements of the legislation will lose performance-based funding, a system implemented by the state university system’s board of governors in 2014. Each public institution is given a score based on its post-graduation outcomes, affordability, student GPA and retention, among other criteria. The score is then used to determine how much of that year’s budget each institution will receive.

The “vagueness” of SB 266, Morse said, “could be weaponized in various ways and as a First Amendment issue, creates just a chilling effect.”

Florida Senate Bill 266