Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants to control what children learn, what teachers can speak about in and out of the classroom, and ultimately what people think. Lawyers for the State of Florida argued in a recent court filing that professors at the state’s public colleges and universities have no right to freedom of speech when they teach. Florida is defending the state’s Individual Freedom Act, more commonly known as the “Stop WOKE Act.” The law bars teachers at public institutions from introducing discussion of race, racism, and sex. The big danger is that the rightwing majority on the United States Supreme Court may give him his wish. With DeSantis a leading candidate for the 2024 Republican Party Presidential nomination, this would be another step towards suppressing democracy in the United States.
The out-of-control rightwing majority on the Supreme Court is likely to approve the DeSantis ban on free speech and academic freedom. In 2006, in the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, a 5-4 rightwing majority of the Supreme Court already ruled that first amendment protection does not apply to employee speech and protect them “from discipline based on speech made pursuant to the employee’s official duties.” At the time the Court did not rule on whether the ban included teachers. But today, an even more rightwing Court majority could rule that teachers, K-12 and college, as government employees in Florida, are subject to discipline including being fired if they exercise speech in their official capacities that violates Florida laws including its notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill and banning any language that might make a student feel uncomfortable such as recognition that Florida was a slave state and attempted to cede from the United States during the Civil War. Since many teacher contracts have a public behavior clause, saying gay or discussing racism outside the classroom but in in public setting could be construed as a violation of professional responsibility and the Florida law.
Florida is not the only state trying to silence teacher and students. According to a June 2021 article in Education Week, in the previous six months bills were introduced in 42 states to restrict teaching about racism and sexism. Anti-CRT laws went into effect in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. The Alabama law forbids teachers from teaching “concepts that impute fault, blame, a tendency to oppress others, or the need to feel guilt or anguish to persons solely because of their race or sex.” A problem that the Alabama and Florida legislators may not have understood is that slavery in the Americas was race-based. Florida’s law adds that teaching that “people are privileged or oppressed due to their race or sex” effectively wipes out any discussion of Jim Crow segregation, limits on the rights of women, and Florida’s long history of voter suppression.
This is not the first time the fundamental rights of teachers have been under attack in the United States because of their beliefs or speech. In the 1930s and 1940s teachers were made to sign loyalty oaths and fired if they held unpopular political beliefs. In the 1940s, New York State prevented the City College of New York from hiring the noted philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell condemning Russell’s views on premarital sex as “immoral and salacious.” In 1941, the New York State Legislature established the Rapp-Coudert Committee to investigate teachers in the state’s educational system. Sixty faculty and staff members at City College were dismissed because they were unwilling to testify before the committee.
In New York City, 1,150 teachers were investigated and 378 teachers were either fired of forced to take early retirement in the 1950s because they were suspected of being current or past members of the Communist Party or had invoked the Fifth Amendment when subpoenaed to testify about their activities. During the Cold War Red Scare teachers were also investigated in other major U.S. cities. At a Congressional sub-committee hearing accusations were made that 1,500 of the country’s one million teachers were “card-carrying Communists.”
In 1954, the school committee in Wayland, Massachusetts removed a second-grade teacher accused of being “[unfit] to teach” because she had been a member of the Communist Party. It accused the teacher of lacking “perception, understanding, and judgment necessary in one who is to be entrusted with the responsibility for teaching the children of the Town.”
The witch-hunts not only impacted the teachers who were fired. Other teachers were frightened into silence and students were denied exposure to ideas that needed to consider, and could potentially reject, about the nature of American society. An earlier version of the Supreme Court recognized this and in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967) and Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, recognized the importance of freedom of speech for teachers. In his majority opinion for the Court in Sweezy, Warren argued, “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities . . . Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”
Unfortunately Florida Republicans and current Supreme Court seem committed to overturning these rulings and the right of teachers to teach.
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