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UFF leads fight for intellectual freedom

Protesters gather at UF
University of Florida students and faculty gather Nov. 12, 2021, to advocate for free speech and academic freedom.

The United Faculty of Florida, FEA’s higher education affiliate, has stepped forward over the past year to fight what has become a multi-pronged series of assaults on academic freedom and free speech at Florida’s public colleges and universities.

“Academic freedom and free speech allow students and scholars to challenge ideas and use our discoveries and expertise for the public good without fear of reprisal,” United Faculty of Florida (UFF) President Andrew Gothard said at a November 2021 news conference. “These are, in fact, the very reasons UFF was initially founded back in 1968, and I am proud to continue that tradition of defending the civil and constitutional liberties of the higher education community, and of all Floridians.”

UFF has been at the forefront of battles against the University of Florida’s attempts to silence its own professors, and against a new state law that threatens to set loose speech police in Florida’s higher education classrooms.

Bad law seeks to choke free speech

House Bill (HB) 233, passed by the Florida Legislature during the 2021 session and subsequently signed into law, was deemed by its sponsors as the “Viewpoint Diversity” law but in fact is designed to track ideas and target speech that the politicians in power don’t like.

By mandating “viewpoint surveys” that have no limits on the questions that can be asked, no guarantee of anonymous responses, and no indication of where and how the results will be published, the law also allows for persecuting students, faculty and staff who do not hold views agreeable to the governor and his political allies in state government — all of whom have threatened to defund academic departments and institutions based on these viewpoint surveys.

“I don’t know about you, but my thoughts and viewpoints are my own and no employer or governor needs to nor has the right to know my thoughts,” President Gothard said recently.

Further, the law allows secret student recordings that can be used in actions against a professor, and which are likely to inhibit both teachers and students from speaking freely. The law is an Orwellian nightmare that can be turned against liberal and conservative alike, depending upon who holds power.

UFF members during the 2021 session
Despite pandemic restrictions in place for the 2021 legislative session, UFF members showed up week after week to give testimony to state lawmakers about HB 233 and other bills affecting higher education. Here, a group gathers in April 2021 at Tallahassee’s civic center to testify by video connection to a Senate committee.

FIGHTING BACK: UFF’s opposition to HB 233 started when the law was first proposed, with faculty and student members uniting to speak and demonstrate against the bill while it was being considered by lawmakers in Tallahassee. After the bill passed despite the protests, UFF joined a lawsuit against the state of Florida opposing the new law. For the 2022 legislative session, UFF has enlisted the help of allies in the state House and Senate to file a bill to repeal this bad law. The “Intellectual Freedom” legislation is HB 6077 in the House and SB 810 in the Senate, sponsored by Rep. Yvonne Hinson and Sen. Tina Polsky, respectively. These bills seek to return Florida’s higher education campuses to places where all students, staff and faculty can think, feel, believe and speak without fear of retribution from the governor’s office or certain legislators.

HOW TO HELP: We urge all Floridians to contact your local legislators and tell them to support HB 6077 and SB 810, the “Intellectual Freedom” bills.

University attempts to silence professors

The University of Florida (UF) provoked a monumental backlash with headlines nationwide in fall 2021 when it denied permission to three professors to testify — in their fields of expertise — in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new voting restrictions law.

Professors who have routinely testified as expert witnesses in voting cases were denied permission in this instance, UF said, because “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida.”

As a Nov. 4 editorial in the Washington Post thundered, “The unprecedented decision is an infringement — likely unconstitutional — on academic freedom that raises troubling questions about whether Florida’s flagship university bowed to political pressure to muzzle faculty voices on a matter of critical public interest.”

FIGHTING BACK: The United Faculty Florida chapter at UF (UFF-UF) jumped to its members’ defense, providing assistance to the three professors and amplifying their message. UFF-UF demanded that the professors be allowed to testify freely and called for specific actions against UF until such testimony was allowed, including asking donors to withhold funds.

The demands and calls for action were presented at a press conference Nov. 5. “We’ve got to save the University of Florida,” Paul Ortiz, president of UFF-UF, told reporters. “This is really a crisis moment in our republic.”

Shortly after the UFF-UF news conference ended, UF President Kent Fuchs announced that he had asked the university’s Conflict of Interest Office to reverse its decision barring professors from providing expert testimony in legal challenges involving the state.

HOW TO HELP: No one believes that this incident was the last time a public university in Florida will attempt to squash speech on political grounds. Please keep your eyes and ears open, and stand ready to help push back against attacks on academic freedom and free speech. Know your legislators, and let them know your thoughts regarding academic freedom. Ask them to support the “Intellectual Freedom” bills, HB 6077 and SB 810.

For updated information on issues concerning faculty and students at our colleges and universities, go to https://myuff.org

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