DeSantis, higher ed leaders say they have a duty to ensure freedom of speech on college campuses

by | Apr 15, 2019

Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the campus of Florida State University Monday morning to reaffirm his commitment to freedom of speech at Florida’s colleges and universities.

The issue of freedom of speech has become a hot topic on college campuses in recent years. Last year, state lawmakers passed a law banning the establishment of “free speech zones at higher education facilities. Opponents criticized the zones for being to restrictive of free speech.

“As elected leaders we have a responsibility to ensure our constitutional freedoms extend to our state’s educational institutions and they are not encumbered,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis is urging the state’s higher education institutions to adopt the Chicago Statement,” which refers to the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago. The statement basically says all viewpoints should be allowed to be expressed regardless of how controversial those viewpoints might be.

“Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn . . . . [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” —Excerpt from the Chicago Statement

“We are here today to affirm our commitment to ensuring that all Florida’s public universities and colleges and protect student speech and the open exchange of ideas on our campuses,” DeSantis said at Monday’s new conference that was attended by FSU President John Thrasher, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and state university system Chancellor Marshall Criser.

“The university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It’s engaged in making students safe for ideas,” Thrasher said. “Only in this way can we best serve American democracy.”

“We support Gov. DeSantis on his position and strongly and unconditionally advocating for freedom of speech at  our universities,” Thrasher went on to say. ”What this does is to say to anybody that this is a campus that is open to anybody to debate ideas, but we’ve got to do it in a safe manner.”

The University of Florida drew national attention two years ago when white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in October 2017. Spencer was forced to cut his speech short when students in the audience drowned him out with chants like “Black Lives Matter.”

DeSantis says he would have preferred that no one had shown up for Spencer’s speech. He said that would have been a better form of protest than shouting down the speaker.

“At an academic institution where you have a speaker expressing ideas, there’s no room for a heckler’s veto where you simply shout down or scream down a speaker so that they cannot articulate views,” DeSantis said.

He also took exception in cases where school administrators have chosen to cancel or “dis-invite” speakers who have controversial views.

“I think that’s a sign of weakness on behalf of school administrators and I think that demonstrates a lack of commitment to free exchange of ideas,” DeSantis said. “There can’t be a safe space in the business world.”



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