Philosopher Kirk Ludwig at the University of Florida at Gainesville writes in regarding the particularly pernicious version of the "Academic Bill of Rights" making its way through the Florida legislature, and raises some issues on which we have remarked previously:
This is a link to the text of HB 837, titled 'Student and Faculty Academic Freedom in Postsecondary Education', filed by Dennis Baxley in the Florida House of Representatives:
The parent page has a link to the staff analysis:
I'd be curious to hear the opinion of people more knowledgeable about the law than I am about the potential ramifications of this bill.
There are three central themes which look problematic. Here are some relevant sections:
(a) Section 1002.21 reads:
As detailed in s. 1004.09, students have rights to a learning environment in which they have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion, to be graded without discrimination on the basis of their political or religious beliefs, and to a viewpoint-neutral distribution of student funds.
(b) Section 1004.09 (1) reads:
Students have a right to expect a learning environment in which they will have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subject they study. In the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, the fostering of a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives should be a significant institutional purpose.
(c) Section 1004.09 (3) reads:
Students have a right to expect that their academic freedom and the quality of their education will not be infringed upon by instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study and serves no legitimate purpose.
(d) Section 1004.09 (5) reads:
Students have a right to expect that their academic institutions will distribute student fee funds on a viewpoint-neutral basis and will maintain a posture of neutrality with respect to substantive political and religious disagreements, difference, and opinions.
The three themes are:
 (i) Students should have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion and (ii) institutions should promote a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives in the humanities and social sciences and arts.
 (i) Student funds should be distributed on a viewpoint neutral basis and (ii) the institution should maintain a posture of neutrality on substantive political and religious disagreements, etc.
 Instructors should not (i) persistently introduce (ii) controversial material that has (iii) no relation to the subject of study and (iv) serves no legitimate purpose.
(i) appears to threaten to shift a matter internal to the various academic disciplines, what counts as serious scholarly opinion, into the courts. Further, it is unclear what is to count as access (is a good library enough?), and on one way of reading it it might require universities to have representatives of every position in a discipline, potentially on any topic in a discipline, on the faculty. (ii), the requirement that institutions promote a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives, is oddly limited to the humanities, social sciences and arts. Further, it is unclear what is to count as a difference in perspective or methodology. If this is taken to refer to different views about the foundations of the field, then this injunction is likely to have a false presupposition for many fields. If it is taken to be something more like, say, different views on de re modality, then it would not be workable if promoting different perspectives meant hiring people with different views.
(i) appears problematic because it looks to have the potential to protect morally reprehensible student organizations, those that, for example, promote hate speech, terrorism, violence against minorities and women, etc. (ii) looks problematic, depending on how 'maintain a posture of neutrality' is understood, because views involved in substantive political and religious disagreements are not immune to being both poorly founded and in conflict with all serious scholarly opinion.
In the case of , everyone can agree that persistently introducing material that has no relation to the subject of study and serves no legitimate purpose is bad pedagogy, whether it is controversial or not.
The inclusion of (ii) appears to be purely rhetorical. It is unclear that this clause, though it has received some attention in discussions of the bill, would have much affect at all. But perhaps there is a potential harm just in the suggestion that bad pedagogy is a matter about which students might potentially sue, and perhaps there is also here a invitation to frivolous or malicious or politically motivated lawsuits.
Meanwhile, a graduate student at a state university in Florida writes with similar concerns:
As a grad student and instructor of philosophy in Florida, I am obviously terrified (not to mention dumb-founded!) by what is going on with our own version of the orwellian "academic bill of rights." I also get the feeling that TA's, instructors, adjuncts, and other non-tenure track teachers will be particularly vulnerable to the law suits which would likely ensue if this disgraceful bill is passed. On the one hand, we are much more likely to lack the financial resources--both university-wide and personal--to properly defend ourselves from "frivolous lawsuits" (to borrow a phrase from the right!). On the other hand, I think that students are often more likely to take offense when TA's and instructors challenge their views since we are often close to the same age. In any event, I am thinking of making the following announcement on the first day of class--indeed, I even debated having the students sign it! And while I may likely get in trouble by my higher-ups (both in the department as well as in the College of Arts and Sciences) I am unsure how else to ensure that a disgruntled student does not (try to) ruin my life. I thought that perhaps you might be willing to start a dialogue on your blog concerning the appropriateness of my approach (not to mention its legal standing--can I even ask students to waive their "right" to sue in this manner?) I want to make sure I don't end up being some guinea pig for the religious right's attempt to de-intellectualize the universities of this great nation--but at the same time, I don't want to make too many waves either since I am currently on the job market! Any advice from you (and your readers) would be greatly appreciated:
As some of you may already know, the Florida legislature is currently considering an "academic freedom" bill (HB 837). The bill’s sponsor (R) Rep. Dennis Baxley claims that the bill is intended to provide what he perceives to be a much-needed counterweight to the "bastions of liberal thought" that purportedly plague Florida universities where professors allegedly misuse their "platform to indoctrinate the next generation with their views." If the bill is passed it would among other things give students who do not feel that their beliefs have been properly respected the legal standing to sue their professors.
Now is not the appropriate time to discuss what I take to be the general merits (or lack thereof) of either the bill or Rep. Baxley’s views. I nevertheless believe that it is especially important for me in light of this bill to discuss my own personal views about my expectations for this class. As a philosophy class, all students will be strongly encouraged to express their views about the topics we will be examining during the course of the semester (e.g., the existence of God, free will, the limits of human knowledge, and moral responsibility). Indeed, going back at least to Socrates, open dialogue has been an essential element of doing philosophy--an element that I will try to foster during the course of this semester. However, discussion often goes hand-in-hand with critical evaluation. So, while everyone--regardless of race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual preference, political affiliation, or ideological orientation—is welcome to express their personal opinions about the topics we examine, these opinions will be open to criticism.
Just as we will be reading and critically evaluating philosophical theories, so we will occasionally end up critically evaluating one another’s views about these theories. Hence, you should not say things in class that you do not want to be subjected to critical evaluation either by me or your fellow students. And while I will try to the best of my abilities to insure at all times that class discussions are civil, I refuse to be held legally responsible for the critical evaluation of beliefs you choose to share with the class. The classroom is a public forum a forum I hope each of you will use to test the limits of your own beliefs and ideologies. I am not interested in changing any of your minds about the topics we discuss but I am nevertheless interested in opening your minds to alternative ways of thinking about some of the perennial problems in philosophy. On both exams and papers, you will never be held responsible for the beliefs you happen to hold rather you will be graded solely based on whether or not you have mastered the course material (e.g., I don’t care whether you believe in free will, but you will be required to explain the various theories of free will we discuss). The goal of this course is never to ridicule or persecute any particular beliefs or theories rather, it is to carefully consider arguments for and against the beliefs and theories we discuss. During the course of this semester, we will be discussing matters that will personally resonate with a number of you. If you are either unwilling or unable to listen to or participate in discussions concerning these issues (which are spelled out on the syllabus), then you are in the wrong class. Consequently, I will assume that by choosing to remain in this class, you thereby forfeit your right to sue me so long as I live up to my end of the bargain i.e., so long as I provide a forum where all of the ideas and opinions expressed in class are given fair treatment.
Some of the things I say here are also contained in the syllabus--but I thought that perhaps something more explicit was in order. And while I don't want to be overly paranoid, given the recent climate in this country--it would perhaps be irrational not to harbor serious doubts about what might happen if this bill is passed.
I have opened comments here, and invite thoughts and responses, especially from those conversant with the legal issues. No anonymous postings, of course.