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Measure puts new campus speech requirements on universities

 Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, is sponsoring a bill that would place new requirements on university debates and forums.
Colin Hackley/file
Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, is sponsoring a bill that would place new requirements on university debates and forums.

The Florida House on Wednesday passed a measure that would put new requirements on universities related to debates and other campus forums, with supporters saying it would bolster free speech but critics arguing it could have unintended consequences.

The Republican-controlled House voted 82-34 along near-party lines to approve the bill (HB 931), which still needs to pass the Senate before it could go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The proposal also would prevent state colleges and universities from requiring students and staff to complete “political loyalty” tests as a condition of admission or employment.

Under the bill, each university would be required to establish an Office of Public Policy Events, which would be responsible for organizing, publicizing and staging at least four debates or forums per year.

“Such debates and group forums must include speakers who represent widely held views on opposing sides of the most widely discussed public policy issues of the day and who hold a wide diversity of perspectives from within and outside of the state university community,” the bill says.

But several House Democrats criticized the bill for not defining “widely held views.” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, argued that leaving the issue open to interpretation could benefit some groups over others.

“I think it’s hard to dictate what is a widely held view. That often can take the shape of who is in political power at that time, who is the biggest donor to a university, who’s the biggest donor to the governor. I just am very concerned that we actually are not creating an environment with freedom of speech, because some speech will be preferred over others,” Eskamani said.

Supporters of the bill, however, argued that it would help protect campus free speech. Rep. Doug Bankson, R-Apopka, called higher-education institutions “a crucible of free thought.”

“It is our foundational right to have freedom of speech. This great bill protects those things. It makes sure that all voices can be heard. Because truth has its own legs, it can stand on its own when it’s given the chance to be heard,” Bankson said.

Rep. Rita Harris, D-Orlando, contended that not all arguments deserve equal airtime.

“I’m sorry but Nazism, there is no pro (side), there is no flip-side to the coin,” Harris said.

Bill sponsor Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers Republican, pushed back on Harris’ argument.

“I would argue that Nazism is not a widely held idea. But let me ask you this — if a speaker came onto campus advocating that we should reinstitute slavery; that we should exterminate the Jewish population, I would say this, ‘So what?’ And I will quote our 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, when he said, ‘The best way to expose a fool is to allow him to rent out a hall and put forth his ideas to his fellow citizens,” Roach said.

The measure also would require that, if a school’s Office of Public Policy Events can’t “readily find an advocate from within the state university community who is well-versed in a perspective,” the office would invite a speaker and provide a per-diem and a reimbursement for travel expenses.

Democrats also questioned why the measure did not include a cap on how much money could be provided to invited speakers.

The part of the bill that seeks to prohibit political loyalty tests defines such tests as “compelling, requiring, or soliciting a person to identify commitment to or to make a statement of personal belief in support of” things such as a specific partisan, political, or ideological set of beliefs.

Such tests also could not require statements of support for any “ideology or movement that promotes the differential treatment of a person or a group of persons based on race or ethnicity, including an initiative or a formulation of diversity, equity, and inclusion” beyond upholding the Constitution.