Florida rule would limit talk of ‘social issues’ at public universities

Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS
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A proposed regulation aimed at restricting diversity programs and social activism at Florida’s public universities has stirred confusion, with some saying its broadly worded passages could limit free speech.

The regulation, when approved, will determine how the state enforces the law known as Senate Bill 266, a measure pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that seeks to gut diversity, equity and inclusion programs at colleges and universities.

A draft version being circulated for feedback says in part that universities may not spend public money on activities that “advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion” or “promote or engage in political or social activism.”

It says political or social activism is “any activity organized with a purpose of effecting or preventing change to a government policy, action, or function, or any activity intended to achieve a desired result related to social issues, where the university endorses or promotes a position in communications, advertisements, programs, or campus activities.”

Social issues are defined as “topics that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs, positions, or norms.”

“I can’t think of anything that doesn’t,” said Gerard Solis, general counsel for the University of South Florida. Speaking to USF’s faculty senate on Thursday, he questioned whether that wording could prohibit commentary surrounding events like Black History Month or even American Pharmacists Month, which is observed in October.

The document is “absolutely horrific” and goes beyond what the legislation required, said Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, the statewide faculty union.

“It limits ways for students to be active members of society and speak their minds, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum,” he said.

State Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, sponsored the legislation that is tied to the proposed regulation. Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, sponsored a similar bill in the Florida House. The lawmakers did not respond to messages Friday requesting comment.

The regulation makes exceptions for student-led organizations; certain activities by schools, such as lobbying; and activities where following the state law would jeopardize federal funding or accreditation.

It also says access programs may remain for military veterans, recipients of the federal Pell Grant for college, first-generation college students, nontraditional students, “2+2″ transfer students from the Florida College System, students from low-income families or students with intellectual disabilities.

The regulation takes aim at the concept of equity by prohibiting schools from “manipulating, or attempting to manipulate, the status of an individual or group to equalize or increase outcomes, participation or representation as compared to other individuals or groups; or advancing the premise or position that a group or an individual’s action is inherently, unconsciously, or implicitly biased.”

In targeting diversity, equity and inclusion programs, it defines them as “any program, activity, or policy that promotes differential or preferential treatment of individuals, or classifies such individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

Solis, the lawyer for USF, said the university planned to express its concerns to the state, calling some language in the draft “overbroad.”

Danaya Wright, chairperson of the University of Florida’s faculty senate, questioned whether research on breast cancer or gynecological treatments would be allowed based on the language of the draft, because it involves spending in a way that classifies individuals by sex.

She also suggested that recent statements by university presidents regarding the Israel-Hamas war might violate the proposed regulation.

The document must be approved by the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System. The board and its committees will convene on Nov. 8 and 9, and the public will have 14 days after that to comment on the regulation.

Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System, said in a statement that because of the law, “the Board of Governors is required to adopt regulations” to prohibit such spending.

The regulation is expected to come before the board for final approval in January.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.