Day 5 of trial testimony: FL higher ed instructors say 2021 law ended up limiting class discussions

By: - January 13, 2023 2:38 pm

Florida State University on July 21, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Instructors from Florida’s colleges and universities took to the stand Friday as part of the first week in a federal challenge to a law that they say limits their ability to lecture freely in classrooms.

Robin Goodman is an English professor at Florida State University and is a plaintiff in the case. She said that a 2021 law was meant to expose students to diverse political viewpoints but actually limited her lectures due to unclear language in the measure.

“The language of the law is so vague and confusing, I wouldn’t know how to follow it,” Goodman said Friday, at the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida located in Tallahassee.

The language Goodman refers to is a part of Florida law that prohibits institutions of higher education and faculty from “shielding” students or staff from “access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”

The law in question, discussed in the court case as HB 233, has three major components:

It provides students the opportunity to record college or university lectures without consent of the professor, implements an annual survey to measure “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on campuses, and declares that institutions or professors cannot “shield” students from ideas that may be offensive or uncomfortable.

The United Faculty of Florida, a statewide university faculty union, is a plaintiff in the case, along with a handful of university faculty, including Goodman.

The defendants in the case are Florida’s top state education officials, including education commissioners and members of the Board of Governors and Board of Education.

Plaintiffs claim that the broad and unclear provisions in the law actually limit what topics and discussion instructors bring up in class.

“It’s been very chilling,” Goodman said Friday.

She added: “I hold back on lecturing,” Goodman said, even noting that a student has recently told her she “wasn’t lecturing enough.”

Earlier Friday, a political science instructor at St. Johns River State College testified that administrators have instructed him to limit what’s taught in his courses, potentially due to HB 233.

James Maggio is not a plaintiff in the case but he is a member of a statewide university faculty union, the United Faculty of Florida.

Maggio told the court that as recently as last week, administrators directed him to “stop teaching CRT (critical race theory), systemic racism, gender theory” or the “living constitution” theory in his courses. (Critical race theory experts say it’s about acknowledging how racial disparities are embedded in U.S history and society.)

He also said he was told to treat slavery, state’s rights, and changes to economic systems” as equal causes in the Civil War, which he disagrees was the case.

“It’s demoralizing,” Maggio testified, saying that the current political climate surrounding higher education has had a negative impact on his mental health.

“I love being a professor…I could be making more money doing something else, but I love teaching,” Maggio said.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.