Freedom to Learn in Florida: An online advocacy workshop
Freedom to Learn in Florida advocacy workshop. Courtesy of PEN America.

Freedom to Learn in Florida: An online advocacy workshop

The Gov. Ron Desantis-led efforts to pursue what he deems the “war on woke” prevail into 2024 with Florida legislators on the front lines. Since 2021, states across the nation have faced bills targeting critical race theory, diversity initiatives and educational autonomy. In an attempt to shed light on the legislative trend, PEN America hosted an online workshop in partnership with AltLiberalArts to address the meaning of free expression, the importance of political advocacy and the looming consequences of government interference in the classroom. 

The “Freedom to Learn in Florida” webinar took place on Zoom  Feb. 16 with the goal of educating both state-wide and national  audiences about politicized educational trends that put Florida’s free expression in education at risk. The panelists were  PEN America’s Free Expression and Education Program Manager Nicholas Perez, Free Expression and Education Program Coordinator Peris Tushabe and Freedom to Learn Coordinator Jacqueline Allain. New College second-year and organizer with Students Against Fascism in Education (SAFE) Xandr Denner acted as the panel moderator. Each panelist covered a different topic for the workshop, which was divided  into three sections: Freedom of Expression Advocacy, Educational Gag Orders in Higher Education and Advocacy and Moving Forward. 

Freedom of Expression Advocacy 

PEN America was founded in 1922 in the aftermath of World War I as a literary club, creating an intellectual community for writers internationally. During the last century, the organization has been a prominent advocate for free expression, defending at-risk writers and artists and fighting censorship through an international network of more than  100 countries. PEN’s mission as stated on its website is “to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.” Perez stated that PEN believes words have power and must be protected, as shown in this short but powerful Youtube video

The distinctive “Pen Charter,”  written in 1948, opposes the suppression of free expression while also acknowledging the importance  of dispelling hate and combating misinformation. PEN believes in protecting the power of words, but also realizes that speech can communicate hate and cause harm, which can have wide-scale impacts. 

Free expression issues are everywhere. Exercising the ability to write, express information and ideas, express one’s views and access the ideas and writing of others fall into the category of free expression. Free expression may be threatened by disinformation, surveillance, authoritarianism, book bans and censorship. State and national authorities decide where they draw the legal line between total free expression and varying degrees of regulation, and pros and cons exist on both ends of the spectrum. 

Help navigating how to respond to various free-speech issues a student may encounter on campus under the ideas and principles of the Pen Charter can be found here

Educational Gag Orders in Higher Education

Freedom to Learn Coordinator Jacqueline Allain described educational gag orders as PEN America’s term for state-level threats to the freedom to read, learn and teach. The purpose of these gag orders, Allain said, are to stifle academic discussions and impose government agendas on what is taught and learned in the classroom. Allain said that educational gag orders can suppress the voices of particular marginalized groups. She cited anti-critical race theory bills and bans on diversity training as examples in Florida.

Allain explained that educational gag order bills in Florida began in 2021  as backlash against political advocacy movements such as Black Lives Matter protests and the 1619 Project. She describes the state government’s deliberate efforts to use ‘critical race theory’ as an umbrella term for any educational practices related to diversity, equity and inclusion. The original template for these bills during the Trump administration was federal executive order 13950 on “combating race and sex stereotyping.” . The order, which dated to September 2020 and was later rescinded by the Biden administration,  contained an itemized list of topics that could not be discussed in federal government training. According to the executive order, subjects such as racial superiority should not be taught in any environment. 

Political influencers such as Christopher Rufo, now a trustee of New College, started to try to impose educational censorship on teachers and professors under this framework, Allain explained, adding that Rufo in particular pioneered the strategy of using critical race theory as a catch-all term. In fact, critical race theory was not being taught in K-12 schools at that time, but, according to Allain, Rufo and others began calling any acknowledgement of racism an example of critical race theory. 

Allain said gag order bills could have  many  consequences,  depending on how they work  in practice across different academic fields and disciplines.  She predicted a variety of outcomes. Examples of potential consequences of educational censorship include the dismissal of scholarly analyses of slavery and race in history, refusal to acknowledge disparity statistics involving race and gender and funding cuts for certain student groups such as the Black Student Union. Already, curricula in teacher training programs have been banned, such as the 2022 South Dakota law complicating the required teaching of Native American History courses. Gender Studies has been targeted and removed from Florida’s New College undergraduate programs. These bills also may put Florida universities’ accreditation statuses at risk; accreditation is the system by which universities prove they are legitimate institutions that can grant degrees and receive federal funding. Legislation that undermines federal standards may jeopardize a university’s accreditation. Above all, Allain said, these bills may lead to an overall administrative censorship that causes faculty to brush over controversial topics because they are too politically risky. 

Since January 2021, PEN America has tracked 100 gag order bills that have been proposed in 34 states, with nine gag order laws passing in eight states. Looking back on 2023, the Florida government had increased emphasis on targeting LGBTQ+ identities, giving the admonishment of critical race theory a backseat. There was also an increase in legislation that undermined the autonomy of universities. For example,  SB266 in Florida took control over the details of core curricula and mission statements away from faculty and made it possible to  restrict or eliminate  DEI offices and ban general education courses that “distort historical events.” 

Allain proposed that more DEI bans can be expected in 2024.  She also predicted more accreditation restrictions, tenure/hiring/firing restrictions and more nationwide bans on gender studies. She suggested that individuals who would like to get involved can write letters to representatives or submit editorial opinion pieces,  as well as talking to family, friends and colleagues about how recent legislation complicates free speech in the classroom.

Advocacy and Moving Things Forward

Free Expression and Education Program Coordinator Peris Tushabe said that ways to advocate  for freedom of education include lobbying, which Tushabe described as direct communication used to influence decision-makers such as legislators  and board officials. Lobbying can include private, one-on-one meetings, mass lobbying days and attending public meetings. Campaigning is another powerful way to advocate,   and it can involve building partnerships, providing financial support, creating large-scale advertisements, doing outreach work such as writing email, letter, or phone complaints, participating in protests or marches and volunteering one’s time for a cause. Finally, educating is another way to advocate. This can include research, writing op-eds, creating social media content, starting clubs or writing for student publications. 

According to Tushabe, it’s important when advocating to increase personal and public awareness by showing people why they should care about the cause. Tushabe cautioned that it’s easy to burn out with advocacy work and it’s essential that one knows how to protect oneself and others. 
PEN America’s educational censorship page tracks  attempts to censor education throughout the United States and also provides a wide range of reports and informational resources for local communities.

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