Students Protest DeSantis’s Attacks on Academic Freedom

Students and faculty protesting at Florida International University. Image source: Kate Payne / WLRN

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is creating a blueprint for reactionary control of public colleges and universities that will affect Florida first, but possibly the entire United States if he or another right-wing Republican is elected President in 2024 or after.  Over the past month, students have organized protests to oppose this attempt to take control of the curriculum and impose a right-wing agenda.  On Feb. 26 there was a walkout on six college campuses, and another this past Wednesday, March 8, at the state capital.

They are fighting HB 999, a bill in the Florida Legislature that DeSantis plans to sign. It would give public college and university trustees, recently appointed directly by DeSantis, control over all hiring and firing, and over all decisions as to what constitutes acceptable curriculum and learning. It would ban even the mention of critical race theory, or any attempts to include criteria or pledges for diversity, inclusion, or equity – which he claims are indoctrinating our young people. He wants to mandate an emphasis on “western culture.” It gives the Governor almost total control over what can be taught and who can teach it in Florida’s public colleges and universities. If this is allowed to happen, what academic freedom exists, no matter how hollow it has been during the past decades, will disappear.

We all know that academic freedom in the U.S. hasn’t been all that free, at least not for those on the left. During the McCarthy Era’s Red Scare of the late 1940s and ’50s, and throughout much of the 20th century, radical professors were silenced, fired, and some had their lives destroyed. Even today, the few professors who openly call themselves socialists or communists are often ostracized within their university faculties, and viciously criticized by reactionary politicians and groups outside their universities. Despite the right-wing noise about how academics and students on the right are “canceled,” their cancellations are only a recent and mild form of punishment compared to what leftists have experienced throughout U.S. history.  

But the right-wing ideologues would have us think that high schools, colleges and universities are overrun by Marxists, LGBTQ activists, and “reverse racists” – as if today being white was really uncomfortable in universities and colleges – a laughable suggestion. Instead, they are fighting any attempt to teach about racism, homophobia, and real U.S. history. Now, with a phony narrative about who is being persecuted, they’re taking steps to destroy the limited academic freedom that has existed in modern colleges and universities.

We stand with the young people and the students who are organizing and protesting against these attacks on our freedom. As one of them said, “We need strength in numbers. This is our fight,” and, “This is just the beginning.”  Indeed, because by organizing broadly and building strength in numbers, they can stop these attacks!