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DeSantis Signs Bill Giving Legislature Oversight of Invited Campus Speakers

Update: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed HB 931 into law on Monday, May 15.

Public universities in Florida would be required to have offices that oversee campus speaker events and ensure that “multiple, divergent, and opposing perspectives” are represented, under a bill that passed the Florida Legislature this month.

The potential mandate comes amid another semester of campus-speech controversies across the country, in which students called on colleges to cancel appearances by invited speakers, arguing that their presence was harmful to particular identity groups, such as transgender students.

The Florida legislation, HB 931, specifies that public colleges must host at least four events each academic year, with two each semester, and that events must include speakers who represent a “diversity of perspectives.”

The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The idea that legislatures should direct colleges to create an office of speaker oversight was- proposed by George R. La Noue, an emeritus professor of public policy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, in his book Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates (Carolina Academic Press, 2019). It also emerged in a model bill written by Stanley Kurtz, a prominent conservative and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which advocates “civic and cultural renewal in the U.S.,” via “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” according to its website.

In a 2019 essay about his “Campus Intellectual Diversity Act,” Kurtz wrote that the speaker office would “arrange for debates, panel discussions, and individual lectures from a wide diversity of viewpoints on current public-policy disputes” and give special attention to speakers who hold “viewpoints otherwise poorly represented on campus.” Per Kurtz’s vision, the office would also have to compile a public calendar of events showing exactly who colleges were inviting to speak.

Colleges would be permitted to assign those responsibilities to an existing office instead of creating a new unit, under Florida’s new bill. But the legislation would require colleges to hire or designate a “director of public-policy events” who would be responsible for compliance. Similar measures have been proposed over the last couple of years in Arizona, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri, but none have become law.

Several experts on campus free speech believe that requiring colleges to have such an office is redundant. Institutions often have academic centers that host a range of forums and lectures, and student groups independently bring a range of speakers, too.

Ensuring that students are exposed to a variety of perspectives — often through events — is not a controversial issue for colleges in Florida or elsewhere, said Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of literacy, culture, and international education at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2023).

“The issue is that you have here the governor or the government trying to impose perspectives on higher-education institutions and undermining their autonomy,” Ben-Porath said. “That should be a concern to anyone who cares about quality education anywhere.”

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education