Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ censorship of public education continues—and students, educators, and advocates across the state say they are concerned it will censor their curriculum.
A preliminary injunction by a federal judge in November blocked portions of Florida’s Individual Freedom Act—also known as the ”Stop WOKE Act”—from being enforced in higher education. However, in December, DeSantis’ office released a memo requesting data from public colleges and universities on courses and programs related to diversity, equity, and inclusion and “critical race theory.” According to ABC News, the Dec. 28 memo further required public colleges and universities to describe which programs and campus-related activities were connected to diversity, equity, inclusion, and critical race theory by Jan. 13. Institutions were also instructed to report how much the programs cost, how much state-funding would be spent on them, and how many employees would be included in the instruction.
In recent weeks, DeSantis appointed six outspoken conservatives to the New College of Florida’s board of trustees, rattling the liberal arts college in Sarasota. He also appointed a private school staff member to the Miami-Dade County School Board. These changes were made in tandem with other acts of fear-induced censorship across the state. In Manatee County, teachers closed their classroom libraries this week out of fear they would be charged with a felony under a new Florida law that requires all reading materials in schools to be selected by an employee with a valid “education media specialist” certificate.
The DeSantis administration also recently blocked the College Board from testing a pilot Advanced Placement African American Studies (APAAS) course because it allegedly violates the Stop Woke Act and “lacks educational value.”
Sixty schools nationwide have already tested the pilot course, which was developed by acclaimed scholars including Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. However, DeSantis claims the course is contrary to Florida law because it teaches students “critical race theory,” an analytical framework that critically analyzes white supremacy and anti-Blackness as a political and legal structure. The term has been co-opted by right-wing movements and used to suppress education.
“This action by the state department of education demonstrates that Florida’s government interprets the state’s ‘Stop WOKE Act’ as carte blanche to ban students from learning about significant currents in historical African American thought,” said Jeremy C. Young, the senior manager for free expression and education programs at PEN America. “Florida’s ban on the AP African American Studies course is bad for free expression advocates, public education supporters, and especially Florida high school students, who will be denied access to a transferable college-level credential at a fraction of the cost of college tuition—increasing the time and expense it takes for them to graduate from college.”
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who issued the preliminary injunction against the “Stop Woke Act” in November, said the Dec. 28 memo from DeSantis’ office is not a violation of the injunction. However, Young calls the governor’s efforts a “witch hunt” that will have a chilling effect on free speech rather than seriously examine public expenditures.
“It’s one thing to engage in a systematic, deliberative review of higher education budgets; it’s entirely another for the government to interrogate faculty and universities about how a specific set of principles and intellectual frameworks are being advanced or taught on campus,” Young said. “The governor’s request contains no clear definitions of the terms about which it seeks information, and colleges were given only two weeks to comply. That’s a recipe for chilling teaching and intimidating higher education administrators, not for improving students’ education.”
One of Young’s biggest concerns with the memo is the ambiguity behind the directive—a recurring pattern seen in both the “Stop Woke Act” and DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The laws are vaguely written and do not explicitly ban education on LGBTQIA+ or racial history, leaving them open to conservative interpretation. Jonathan Cox, an assistant sociology professor—and the only Black professor in the sociology department—at Orlando’s University of Central Florida, canceled courses on race and social media and race and ethnicity because he thought teaching them would cost him his job.
“One university has already interpreted this request as an obligation to report on the content of individual courses,” Young said. “Given that numerous state laws passed in the last year are having a profound chilling effect on public education, including a worrying rise in self-censorship among Florida faculty, such government-mandated reporting is at odds with the principles of open inquiry, academic freedom, and the free exchange of scholarly ideas that should be hallmarks of a college education. This request appears likely to make the climate for education even worse than it already is.”
According to Young, the DeSantis administration’s censorship thrives on ambiguously written laws and memos that are threatening enough to strike fear in educators and administrators, leading them to self-censor. As a result, students are being denied a robust and historically accurate curriculum.
“The goal, at a minimum, is to intimidate, Young said. “We don’t know what this information is going to be used for. The way that these laws are written and these requests are written is to be intentionally vague. They don’t specify what they mean by ‘diversity.’ They don’t specify what they mean by ‘critical race theory.’ And the reason for that is, functionally speaking, teachers and staff members who engage in any of these practices will be afraid that they will be censored. This is a strategy that is designed to pit the prudent management of risk, which is a necessary component of any higher education institution, against the proper functioning of the institution.”
Young encourages educators and administrators to resist the memo and not overinterpret the directives. In one instance, a department chair tweeted that, because the terms were not defined in the memo request, he could only go off of the definitions in House Bill 7, which do not apply to any of the courses taught in his department. Therefore, he would be supplying a blank list.
“That’s the right strategy,” Young said. “We certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to break the law or violate any explicit prohibitions in these laws or explicit requests from the governor’s office. But the vagueness of these laws and requests can be a two-way street. There should be no need to comply with the possibility that something might apply to you or to your course, unless they’re going to come out and directly prohibit certain types of content. Teachers and administrators should not give into these tactics; they should continue to do what they’re doing. They should report only the information that is explicitly requested and change only the things that have been explicitly told to change.”
Students play an enormous role in guiding the national narrative against these laws. For example, high school students across Florida have vocally opposed and protested the “Stop Woke Act” and “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Students are also already combating DeSantis’ decision to appoint six conservative board members to the New College of Florida’s 13-member board. The school is known for being a safe and open space for LGBTQIA+ students—as activist X González, a New College of Florida alum, recently wrote, “in the queer space of New College, changing your pronouns, name, or presentation is a nonevent.”
Now, students and alumni are concerned DeSantis is trying to reshape and take over one of the few liberal public colleges left in an increasingly conservative and censored state. The New College of Florida board now includes conservative activists such as Christopher Rufo, who is credited with inventing “the conflict” over critical race theory, and Matthew Spalding, a professor and dean at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan.
“They are essentially right wing pundits who do not have any experience running a public institution of higher education and who are not from Florida and have no ties to the state,” said Young. “By appointing manifestly unqualified people to this board with the sole intent of turning this public college into a Hillsdale of the South, [DeSantis] is attacking the institutional independence of the university.”
One alumnus, who requested to remain anonymous because he now works as a public school teacher in Miami-Dade County (MDCPS), said one of the best parts about attending New College was the liberal environment that enabled him to learn Marxist-Lenninst philosophy, participate in Theatre of the Oppressed, and understand the importance of anti-establishment education.
The teacher said he is concerned the curriculum will be adjusted to reflect DeSantis’ political beliefs and that student involvement will dissipate as a result.
“They’re changing the way people get educated,” he said. “If you only allow an 18-year-old first year to learn certain things, it’s going to affect the way they socialize and the way they express themselves. That’s the period of time where I think we are most allowed to broaden our horizons as students.”
As a teacher in MDCPS, he is similarly concerned with how DeSantis’ censorship may impact his classroom. While he has not had any complaints in the last year, he still feels like a “pawn in a political game.”
“Is this an autocratic state? Is this turning into a totalitarian regime?” he asked. “The fact that I have to be careful about what I teach and not let students make the choice to inform themselves about history and ideology in a way that enriches them is something that I do not agree with.”
Overall, the teacher’s frustration is shared amongst many educators across Florida, who feel their jobs are being politicized.
“I want to see teachers treated with respect,” he said. “Our purpose is to teach, to help grow responsible, conscientious people. Everything we teach is in an effort to create an awareness of your role as a person in the world, and [this legislation] comes in between that.”