Should universities be places of “safety”? Some argue yes – it’s that safety that allows students to learn and thrive and be challenged. Some argue no – suggesting a culture of “safetyism” mollycoddles.
And it’s a debate that splits down political lines. In 2018, a Pew Research Center survey of Americans who were pessimistic about higher education found that 75 per cent of conservatives thought there was too much concern over protecting students from potentially offensive views, but only 31 per cent of liberals agreed.
As a result over the past three years, seven US states have passed measures on free speech on university campuses – and there’s twelve or so that are currently debating legislation of that sort according to a database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
One that’s set to become law in the coming week is in Florida. It’s a proposal that would require public universities to annually survey the political views of students and staff on campus, and would allow the state government to see if students are being presented with opposing ideas on campus:
Conduct an annual assessment of the intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at that institution. The State Board of Education shall select or create an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey to be used by each institution which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the college community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.
For obvious reasons, many are worried:
It’s great to have the information about how students feel but there’s a danger that it could be used as a tool or a weapon basically by state lawmakers to withhold appropriations,”
…says Clay Calvert, a law professor and director at the University of Florida’s First Amendment Project. Calvert reckons lawmakers may end up basing funding for different universities based on the findings of the survey
The bill would prevent universities from “shielding” students from differing perspectives even if the campus community finds those views to be offensive, although it’s not at all clear how that would be enforced. It would also – extraordinarily – specifically allow students to record their teaching when students feel an academic is imposing their political views upon them.
That last idea hasn’t gone down well. The Senate at the University of South Florida is likely to pass a resolution that points out that:
A recording entitlement will have the counterproductive effect of limiting the range of viewpoints expressed in class, because students and faculty will choose not to experiment with new ideas, discuss sensitive or controversial issues, or engage in what they fear will be disfavored speech”.
It’s a fascinating move because some would argue that part of the problem these days is that the “walls of the seminar room” are more porous than they used to be – and it’s that that’s causing some to self-censor.
But the bill is now likely to go through in the state linked to above. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that promotes free speech on campuses who invented the “free speech rankings” that Spiked! eventually adapted in the UK, has been campaigning about things like the University of Central Florida’s harassment policy against “offensive” actions toward particular people, pointing out that it doesn’t specify which acts are considered “offensive.”
And an organisation called Speech First launched a legal challenge in February against the University of Central Florida over its harassment policy, as well as a computer policy that bans messages deemed to be hateful, among other policies. In a statement to the media, UCF has said it’s reviewing the issue and “has a long history of supporting free speech and open expression.”
There’s a couple of other measures of note in the bill. One would allow student government officers or reps (like our SUs without the buildings) that have been sacked by students to appeal to the university, presumably to protect them from “woke” student disciplinary committees:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, each student government shall adopt internal procedures providing an elected or appointed officer of the student government who has been disciplined, suspended, or removed from office, the right to directly appeal such decision to the vice president of student affairs or other senior university administrator designated to hear such appeals.
Perhaps more chillingly, there’s a crackdown on student protest in the bill too:
Each Florida College System institution shall adopt rules and each state university shall adopt regulations for the lawful discipline of any student who intentionally acts to impair, interfere with, or obstruct the orderly conduct, processes, and functions of the institution. Said rules or regulations may apply to acts conducted on or off campus when relevant to such orderly conduct, processes, and functions.
At a bill hearing earlier this month, Senator Tina Polsky (a Democrat) questioned whether groups like Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan would be able to organise on campus under the legislation:
You just can’t practice in absolutes and say that every single person is welcome on campus, because they’re not… This is meant to be a safe place for students.”
Perhaps it would do us all good to sit down and work out what “safety” does, can and should mean?