“” Professors are not mouthpieces for the government. For decades, the Supreme Court of the United States has defended professors’ academic freedom from governmental intrusion,” Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), tells Reason. “As the Supreme Court wrote in Keyishian v. Board of Regents: ‘Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.'”
“Unfortunately, Rufo’s ideas aren’t hypothetical. In recent months, several legislative efforts—most notably in Florida—have attempted to quash professors’ academic freedom. “Legislative initiatives like the STOP Woke Act and HB 999 seek to use the power of the state to shut down speech and scholarship on politically disfavored views,” adds Cohn. “These efforts cannot be squared with our longstanding national commitment to academic freedom.”
An argument supporting censorship in the name of “the pursuit of truth as the telos of America’s public universities,” as Rufo claimed, is ultimately shortsighted. Not only does Rufo fail to see how the powers he would give the government could be wielded against his ideological allies, but he also fails to see how censorship ultimately runs counter to the same American values he claims to support.
“Professors must be able to teach, conduct research, and publish scholarship without fear of viewpoint-based retribution from the government,” says Cohn. “And students must be able to learn from faculty who are not muzzled by the state.””
“Signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in April 2022, the law prohibits private employers and university professors from endorsing certain concepts related to race and other categories of identity. The statute drew lawsuits almost immediately. A number of employers and a diversity consultant challenged a provision that says private employers may not require employees to attend a training or activity that promotes any of eight listed concepts.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker, writing for the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee Division, then issued an injunction against enforcing that provision. “Normally, the First Amendment bars the state from burdening speech, while private actors may burden speech freely,” Walker wrote. “But in Florida, the First Amendment apparently bars private actors from burdening speech, while the state may burden speech freely.”
In November, Walker issued another injunction, this one blocking a similar section of the law that applies to university professors. He accused the state of essentially arguing that “professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves,” a position Walker described as “positively dystopian.”
“The First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark,” he concluded.
It is this November injunction the 11th Circuit just left in place.
“Conservatives who cheer on the Florida law should consider what liberal states—or, for that matter, a Democratic-controlled Congress—could do if allowed to engage in similar regulation,” Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, warns at The Volokh Conspiracy. “The same powers that Florida uses to target ‘woke’ employer speech can just as easily be used against conservative employers.””
“At the governor’s urging, Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature is pushing to weaken state laws that have long protected journalists against defamation suits and frivolous lawsuits. The proposal is part DeSantis’ ongoing feud with media outlets like The New York Times, Miami Herald, CNN and The Washington Post — media companies he claims are biased against Republicans — as he prepares for a likely 2024 presidential bid.
Beyond making it easier to sue journalists, the proposal is also being positioned to spark a larger legal battle with the goal of eventually overturning New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits public officials’ ability to sue publishers for defamation, according to state Rep. Alex Andrade, the Florida Republican sponsoring the bill.”
“the proposed bill goes further than simply decrying media bias. Free-press advocates call the measure unconstitutional and suggest it could have far-reaching consequences beyond major media outlets.
“I have never seen anything remotely like this legislation,” said Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “I can’t say I have seen every bill ever introduced, but I’d be quite surprised if any state Legislature had seriously considered such a brazen and blatantly unconstitutional attack on speech and press freedoms.”
He added: “This bill is particularly remarkable since its provisions have the vocal support of a governor and likely presidential candidate.”
DeSantis’ office said he “will make a decision on the merits of the bill in final form if and when it passes and is delivered to the governor’s office.””
“Andrade’s proposal incorporates many of the elements DeSantis called for during the roundtable, including:
— allowing plaintiffs who sue media outlets for defamation to collect attorneys fees;
— adding a provision to state law specifying that comments made by anonymous sources are presumed false for the purposes of defamation lawsuits;
— lowering the legal threshold for a “public figure” to successfully sue for defamation;
— repealing the “journalist’s privilege” section of state law, which protects journalists from being compelled to do things like reveal the identity of sources in court, for defamation lawsuits.
Stern said 49 states and several appellate circuits recognize a reporter’s privilege against court-compelled disclosure of source material and stressed that it’s essential for people to be able to speak to reporters without risking their jobs or freedoms.
“Journalists do not work for the government and it’s none of the government’s business how journalists gather news,” he added.
Andrade, however, said the privilege language in his bill would not allow a judge to force a journalist to reveal an anonymous source, but removes existing protections if they decide not to.”
““The law protects journalists from being ‘compelled’ by judges to disclose anonymous sources, but if a journalist has been sued for defamation, and wants to avoid liability, this section makes clear that they cannot claim a special privilege to avoid disclosing the source of the defamatory information and also avoid liability,” Andrade said.
Critics of the bill took issue with the section about attorneys fees, saying it could add a financial incentive to file defamation lawsuits and erode the laws preventing retaliatory lawsuits filed to silence criticism. Florida, like other states, has anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) laws designed to help stop frivolous lawsuits.
“One of my largest concerns with the bill is the rolling back of the anti-SLAPP protection for defamation defendants,” said Adam Schulman, a senior attorney with the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute, which advocates for free markets, free speech and limited governments. ”That’s just moving in the wrong direction.”
He said beyond large media companies, some of which have legal teams, the changes could affect the “ordinary guy” who leaves an “unfavorable Yelp review.”
“At one time, it was not considered ‘conservative’ to advocate for turning on the spigot to all sorts of troll-like civil litigation that will line the pockets of bottom-feeding plaintiffs’ lawyers,” Schulman said.
Stern said the new bill would leave those protections “toothless.” Under most anti-SLAPP laws, individuals can recover attorneys’ fees if they can show they were sued in retaliation for criticizing the government.”
“the Republican appointed Chris Rufo, the architect of the 2021 moral panic over “critical race theory,” to the board of a public liberal arts school in Florida. As Rufo told New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, his goal — and the goal of several other DeSantis appointees to the New College of Florida’s board — is to transform New College, a liberal bastion in the South, into something more like Hillsdale College, a conservative school in Michigan with close ties to former President Donald Trump.
The one positive thing that can be said about this appointment is that it is, at least, legal — something that cannot be said about many of the governor’s attempts to sic the government on institutions he deems too liberal. DeSantis isn’t just determined to use his public office to suppress dissenting voices and promote his own reactionary views; he’s also quite willing to thumb his nose at the Constitution in order to do so.
Indeed, DeSantis often seems to revel in his contempt for the First Amendment, even fundraising off of it. Shortly before DeSantis signed unconstitutional legislation punishing the Walt Disney Company for criticizing one of his policies, the governor sent a fundraising email to supporters touting the fact that he was doing so. The company, DeSantis said, was being punished after it “tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda.”
DeSantis signed legislation imposing speech codes on university professors, as well as legislation attempting to seize control of content moderation at sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. He attacks classroom teachers with vague, unconstitutional laws stigmatizing LGBTQ people. His administration threatens drag performers with criminal charges.
In his victory speech shortly after winning reelection in his increasingly conservative state, DeSantis pledged to “fight the woke in the legislature,” “fight the woke in the schools,” and to “fight the woke in the corporations.”
One of his lawyers later clarified that the word “woke” means “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”
As a constitutional matter, a governor is allowed to give speeches arguing that the United States is somehow miraculously immune from systemic injustice. He may sign legislation repealing programs intended to cure these injustices. He may appoint officials to public school boards that share his belief that the US is immune to these injustices. And he may even enact policies that help perpetuate these injustices, assuming that those policies violate neither the state nor federal constitution.
But DeSantis goes much further. He wields the government’s sovereign powers to sanction speech he does not like, and to punish institutions that criticize him. DeSantis, in other words, does not seem content to simply enact policies that hew to a right-wing economic or social vision. He wishes to use the sovereign powers of government to shape public discourse itself — punishing some ideas, rewarding others, and conscripting public schools and universities into his culture war.
To be fair, DeSantis is hardly unique among Republican state governors in this regard — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), for example, signed legislation targeting social media companies that is even more aggressive than Florida’s. But DeSantis is also widely viewed as a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, so he is uniquely positioned to take his speech war national if elected president.”
“Among other provisions, FOSTA created the new federal crime of owning, managing, or operating an “interactive computer service” with “the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.”
In court last week, U.S. attorneys still clung to the argument that FOSTA merely targets illegal conduct, not protected speech.
The government has “essentially made a single argument, which is that FOSTA is essentially just an aiding and abetting statute, despite the language that it uses—it doesn’t use the terms and abetting—and as a result of that, it’s constitutional,” explains Greene. And last week in court, “they got a lot of pushback against that from at least two of the judges,” he says.
“In my mind, it’s not an aiding-and-abetting law. We know how to write ’em when we want to,” Harry Edwards, one of the three judges on the panel, said during the hearing. “This doesn’t look like anything that I understand to be an aiding-and-abetting law.”
“That immediately tells me the government’s got great concern that the statute, as actually written, has problems—so let’s make it something that it’s not,” Edwards continued. He characterized U.S. attorneys’ reasoning as “let’s call it aiding and abetting, and maybe we can cause the court to believe that the reach of the statute is limited because we’ve called it something that it’s not.””
“Greene and his team argue that FOSTA violates the First Amendment “because it’s overbroad [and] can apply to a substantial amount of protected speech,” he explains. “And that’s principally because the language that it uses includes not just things that are in themselves the commission of illegal acts of sex trafficking or prostitution.” Rather, “it uses language like ‘promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person’ without being clear on what that means.”
The language of FOSTA “can be reasonably read to include protected [speech]—and not just protected speech, but speech that’s really highly important, like providing harm reduction, health and safety information to sex workers, to advocating on particular sex workers’ behalf, to advocating for decriminalization, and things like that,” Greene says.
During last week’s hearing, Judge Patricia Millett pushed back on the government’s claims that FOSTA didn’t criminalize advocating for legal prostitution.
“If someone actively promotes on their website the legalization of prostitution … how is that not [promoting prostitution]?” she asked.”
“While college campuses are chock full of particularly mind-numbing misunderstandings of the First Amendment—from students and administration alike—the example that takes the cake this year comes from Yale Law School, where student activists disrupted a Federalist Society event discussing civil liberties.
As Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) attorney Zach Greenberg wrote, “Protesters banged on walls, stomped on the ground, chanted ‘Fuck you FedSoc,’ and screamed at the panelists…. The cacophony persisted for the majority of the event, and though panelists struggled to project their voices over the noise, the audience remained largely unable to hear them.”
The activists’ actions comprised a “heckler’s veto”—a form of unprotected speech where the heckler prevents someone from exercising their free speech rights by physically preventing them from being heard. However, the activists didn’t seem to care. When students were told their actions violated Yale’s free expression policies, a chorus of students insisted that “This is free speech.””
“The erroneous idea comes from the 1919 case Schenk v. United States. The case concerned whether distributing anti-draft pamphlets could lead to a conviction under the Espionage Act—and had nothing to do with fires or theaters.
In his opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” However, this idea was introduced as an analogy, meant to illustrate that, as Trevor Timm wrote in The Atlantic in 2012, “the First Amendment is not absolute. It is what lawyers call dictum, a justice’s ancillary opinion that doesn’t directly involve the facts of the case and has no binding authority.” The phrase, though an oft-repeated axiom in debates about the First Amendment, is simply not the law of the land now, nor has it ever been—something made all the more apparent when Schenk v. United States was largely overturned in 1969 by Brandenburg v. Ohio.
“Anyone who says ‘you can’t shout fire! in a crowded theatre’ is showing that they don’t know much about the principles of free speech, or free speech law—or history,” Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression President Greg Lukianoff wrote in 2021. “This old canard, a favorite reference of censorship apologists, needs to be retired. It’s repeatedly and inappropriately used to justify speech limitations.””
“As much as Durbin may dislike hateful speech or speech that spreads conspiracy theories, they are both generally protected by the First Amendment.”
“Durbin had plenty of reason to be troubled by these developments—the mass-tweeting of hateful language is concerning, and so too is such a powerful figure seemingly fooled by an online hoax—he was mistaken when asserting that Musk’s tweet was somehow not covered “by free speech.””
“Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading presidential contender, is skilled at appealing to Republicans who resent the censorious self-righteousness of woke progressives. But instead of defending free inquiry and open debate, DeSantis seems bent on fighting intolerance with intolerance.
When he signed the Individual Freedom Act (IFA) last April, DeSantis bragged that it would “prevent discriminatory instruction in the workplace,” striking a blow against “the far-left woke agenda.” But as a federal judge explained last week, the law’s restrictions on employee training blatantly violate the First Amendment.
The IFA expanded Florida’s definition of “unlawful employment practices” to include “any required activity” that promotes one or more of eight forbidden concepts. Some of those ideas are plainly illiberal (e.g., linking moral status to race) or patently silly (e.g., viewing virtues such as excellence, hard work, and fairness as white supremacist constructs), while others are ambiguous or debatable (e.g., the notion that “members of one race, color, sex, or national origin cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race, color, sex, or national origin”).
Whatever you think of those ideas, the government has no business decreeing whether and how they can be discussed in private workplaces. Yet that is what the IFA does: It allows discussion “in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts” while forbidding speech that “espouses, promotes, advances, [or] inculcates” them.
As U.S. District Judge Mark Walker noted when he issued a preliminary injunction against those restrictions, they amount to “a naked viewpoint-based regulation on speech,” which is presumptively unconstitutional. “Under our constitutional scheme,” Walker observed, “the ‘remedy’ for repugnant speech ‘is more speech, not enforced silence.'”
DeSantis argued that the IFA aims to prevent a “hostile work environment” created by ideas that might discomfit employees. Walker thought that was a stretch because that term encompasses speech only when it is “both objectively and subjectively offensive and when it is sufficiently severe or pervasive”—requirements that provide “shelter for core protected speech.”
More to the point, conservatives have long criticized discrimination claims based on an allegedly hostile work environment precisely because they can transform otherwise protected speech into illegal “harassment.” Yet DeSantis is not only defending that concept; he is extending it to cover even a single “required activity” that “espouses” ideas he does not like.”