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The DeSantis Doctrine: Florida governor blazes trail for GOP on free speech, school choice, civics

New campus intellectual freedom law lets professors sue students for up to $200,000 for sharing classroom recordings without consent.

Updated: June 24, 2021 - 8:34am

Nearly 200 years ago, President James Monroe warned European powers that the United States would not tolerate further colonization of the Americas. It became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to be developing a doctrine of his own: Florida will not tolerate ideological colonization of its public classrooms.

The Republican has signed a slew of education-related bills into law this year that play well with the conservative base. Three more came Tuesday night: college viewpoint diversity and due process in disciplinary matters; a patriotic civics curriculum that emphasizes why people flee communist regimes; and a new civics "assessment" for high school and college students.

DeSantis hasn't always used the legislative process. Earlier this month he convinced the Board of Education to approve a rule that bans teaching history through the lens of critical race theory.

But the governor has also made overtures to voters disaffected by public schools' response to the COVID-19 pandemic and treatment of special-needs children. 

He signed legislation expanding eligibility for education vouchers by 60,000 and authorized state colleges and universities to create and sponsor charter schools. (That 73-page charter bill also included a much more controversial section banning male-to-female transgender students from competing in female sports.)

Easily missed amid the signing blitz this week, the governor enacted Democratic legislation to ban physical restraint on students with disabilities as a disciplinary measure and severely limit its use as a safety measure. 

The DeSantis Doctrine on public education could serve as a road map for fellow Republicans seeking higher office. Last week, he topped former President Trump in a straw poll on favorites for 2024 Republican presidential nominee at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver.

He's raising money across the country for his 2022 reelection bid — a San Diego fundraiser dubbed him "America's Governor" — but DeSantis has waved off speculation of a White House run in 2024. Trump's former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who recently spent three days with the governor, said DeSantis would never challenge Trump for the nomination.

While the governor's agenda has been predictably unpopular with progressive interests, specific provisions in legislation he signed have found disfavor with less ideological groups.

The campus free speech bill, HB 233, requires public colleges to conduct annual assessments on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity and prohibits them from "shield[ing]" students, faculty or staff from speech protected by the First Amendment and state constitution. But the final version still gives students permission to record their class lectures for "personal educational use" or in connection with internal administrative or legal complaints. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warned three months ago that this could worsen "cancel culture" and self-censorship by enabling bad-faith complaints against students and faculty for their classroom speech. The group was also aghast that the bill authorizes faculty to sue students for up to $200,000 for publishing recordings without their consent.

"This is definitely a bittersweet bill, with sections we like and others that raise serious concerns," Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director, wrote in an email. FIRE strongly supports provisions that require public universities to give accused students "timely written notice" of allegations against them, what code they violated, the identity of witnesses against them, exculpatory evidence and a presumption of innocence.

While the bill banning disciplinary physical restraint for students with disabilities drew bipartisan applause, the school choice expansion (HB 7045) drew concern from some advocates for children with disabilities.

It moves two special-needs scholarships, including one for profoundly disabled children, into another general-purpose scholarship program that families can use to pay for private, charter or home schooling. Some families told WFTV that certain classes of special-needs children could get less funding under the new funding matrix, though DeSantis promised to keep an eye on the law's impact for them.

The DeSantis agenda in some ways is following the template set by Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

She heavily promoted educational options beyond traditional public schools, and various states have followed in her wake, as Politico noted this week. West Virginia recently tripled authorizations of charter schools, while legislative bodies in Pennsylvania and Ohio have pursued similar policies.

DeVos also shepherded through the Department of Education's crowning regulatory achievement: the enactment of strong due process protections for accused students in campus sexual misconduct proceedings. The new Florida law mirrors the basics of that regulation.

"Much of what Betsy advocated for as Secretary is being proven true today," Nate Bailey, her former chief of staff and personal spokesperson, told Just the News.

"The COVID lockdowns exposed to most families both how little government-run schools are focused on the child's needs, and some of the wild-eyed, far-left concepts being forced down their children's throats," he wrote in an email. "It's little wonder that school choice is gaining so much ground all across America."