Controversial ‘viewpoint’ survey sent to Florida’s colleges draws criticism from faculty

Florida law signed in 2021 requires annual survey be offered to students, faculty to gauge ‘viewpoint suppression’

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Students and faculty at Florida’s public universities were sent an invitation to participate in “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” surveys with the stated aim of “discover[ing] the extent to which all viewpoints - conservative, liberal, and otherwise - are welcomed and provided appropriate attention on your campus and in the classroom.”

The survey, from the state university system’s Board of Governors, is in response to HB 233 signed into law in 2021 by Governor DeSantis, who, at the time, claimed universities were prone to suppressing certain political viewpoints, though he did not cite any specific examples or elaborate on which viewpoints were being suppressed.

“It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas,” DeSantis said in a June 2021 public appearance. “Unfortunately, now, the norm is really these are really more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted and other viewpoints are shunned and even suppressed. You need to have a true contest of ideas.”

Two versions of the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” were distributed to students and faculty respectively. The voluntary surveys make clear to participants that the answers will be submitted anonymously and that the results will not be presented on an individual, but instead, a group level.

The student version poses multiple-choice questions to see how strongly the respondent agrees or disagrees with various statements such as, “my college or university classes provide an environment for free expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs.”

The survey distributed to faculty asks respondents directly about their political viewpoint.

This screenshot was captured from the faculty survey distributed on April 4, 2022. (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

The United Faculty of Florida, the union representing higher education faculty, sued Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran over the survey and its language.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker ruled that the language contained in the survey does not rise to the level of discrimination of any particular viewpoint. However, on Tuesday, Walker batted down the state’s motion to dismiss the case. It’s set to go to trial on September 19.

The survey continues to be criticized by faculty organizations, who claim it’s an attempt to manufacture a controversy to generate political support from DeSantis’ conservative base.

“We don’t need or want a return to the dark days of McCarthyism and the Johns Committee in Florida,” UFF-UNF President Nicholas de Villiers said. “Academic freedom, freedom of speech, and exposure to diverse perspectives in the classroom are core values for our campus community. Faculty do not welcome the interference of an explicitly partisan survey that infringes on our privacy and civil liberties.”

News4JAX asked Governor DeSantis’ office if it had any evidence of political viewpoints being suppressed on college campuses. A spokesperson for the DeSantis administration forwarded a list of items that included links to opinion editorials from major news publications, copies of studies performed by conservative political organizations, and other sources that appear to have the sole purpose of proving the theory of ideological suppression in higher education institutions.

The full email from DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw can be viewed below:

“With all due respect, I thought the dominance of left-wing orthodoxy and intimidation of any dissenting views was common knowledge, but of course I can share with you some background on this subject. I would note that all of this information is in the public domain, available to all who are interested in doing basic research on this subject – even WJXT reporters:

Higher education falls short in viewpoint diversity. Survey of a nationally representative sample of university administrators found that liberal staff members outnumber their conservative counterparts by the astonishing ratio of 12:1. Only 6% of campus administrators identified as conservative to some degree, while 71% classified themselves as liberal or very liberal. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/16/opinion/liberal-college-administrators.html

In 2018, Yale surveyed a national sample of 800 undergraduates and found that more than half (54%) reported they “often” felt intimidated by their peers on campus.” Breaking this down further, 62% of those students who identified as conservative “often” felt silenced. Many moderate and liberal students also expressed that feeling. Governor DeSantis doesn’t want anyone to feel like they are silenced because of their political views, whatever those views might be. Yale Study: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/b0cbbd_7fd2855afcff462baeb926d125af4ba1.pdf

2019 Heterodox Academy’s Campus Expression Survey of over 1500 students asked how comfortable they were sharing their views on six topics: politics, race, religion, sexuality, gender, and noncontroversial issues. Republican students reported being more reluctant than Democrats and Independents and were markedly more hesitant to share their views on politics, race, sexuality and gender. https://heterodoxacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CES-Fall-2019.pdf

2019 Knight Foundation survey of over 4400 students found that 68% felt silenced because “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive.” https://kf-site-production.s3.amazonaws.com/media_elements/files/000/000/351/original/Knight-CP-Report-FINAL.pdf

2020 FIRE free speech survey of almost 20,000 college students confirmed that self-censorship on campuses is prevalent: Six out of ten college students say they have kept quiet due to fear of how others would respond. Breaking this down further, the largest group on campus which self-censors is “strong Republicans” (73%) and the lowest is “strong Democrats” (52%). https://www.thefire.org/largest-ever-free-speech-survey-of-college-students-ranks-top-campuses-for-expression/

WSJ: Georgetown University’s law school violated its own speech policy last week when it placed Ilya Shapiro, a newly hired administrator, on leave over a tweet that offended some students. https://www.wsj.com/articles/college-dont-care-free-speech-ilya-shapiro-treanor-georgetown-cancel-pc-culture-censorship-campus-11644167414

I have attached a comprehensive list of speakers (right and left politically) who have been disinvited/deplatformed from universities due to comments they made that some perceived as controversial: https://www.thefire.org/research/disinvitation-database/ This list is from FIRE; their website has a lot of great resources to learn about the threats to free expression on campus – and it is a nonpartisan organization that protects speech of all political leanings.

And here’s another recent poll of students, showing they are concerned about threats to free speech, with conservatives being the most concerned: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/meet-the-press/students-value-free-speech-feel-theirs-threatened-n1288217

So given that there is plenty of evidence that free speech on campus may be in danger, we want a better understanding of the climate for free expression at Florida’s colleges and universities. The survey is intended to help achieve this. Regardless of a student or faculty member’s political views, they should all enjoy the same right to free speech.”

Christina Pushaw, Office of the Governor of Florida

The UFF identified several issues with the administration of the survey, noting that there are few barriers to prevent participants from taking it several times or distributing the survey link to people outside the university.

“Since the survey’s release, UFF has received multiple reports of students and employees sending the survey to friends and of individuals filling it out multiple times, since the survey’s distributions methods [sic] provide few if any safeguards against these actions,” a UFF press release said. “In addition, many faculty have noted that the survey does not provide questions about the impact higher ed administrators, local Boards of Trustees members, or members of the Florida Legislature are having upon a campus’s political environment – only the impact of faculty and student actions and speech.”

News4JAX political analyst and director of the Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University, Rick Mullaney said one should consider at least two conflicts at play in this case; 1) How the survey is written and administered, and 2) the intended purpose, effect and utilization of the survey’s results.

“I think it’s a mistake to commingle these into one big controversial issue when there’s really separate issues here,” Mullaney said. “The first issue is the whole notion of the survey itself, whether it’s a good idea or bad idea, or what its purpose is. Then, you’ll have two different views as to the validity of the survey itself. Because the proponents will argue that it’s anonymous, it’s at the group level, it’s not for the purpose of repipe reprisal. The faculty and the unions will argue just the opposite, saying we can assure that, that there is identifying data so it can be used individually. It’s an invasion of privacy.”

Mullaney added that whatever the results of the survey show, they’ll likely be used as political ammunition when they’re officially presented to the state legislature in the 2023 session.

“Right now, it’s really kind of too early to tell quite honestly,” Mullaney said. “What I suspect down the road, if you have a survey, and those survey results favor one side or the other, then they certainly will point to it and say this is consistent with what we told you. On the other hand, the opponent will say Yeah, but it’s not a valid survey.”

According to the statute, the annual survey must be conducted by Sept 1.

News4JAX is choosing not to publish a link to the survey, as it’s meant only for students and faculty at public Florida higher education institutions.