Florida has become the poster child for eroding freedom of expression in their public colleges. Can Connecticut learn from its example and become a model for how to preserve the unfettered exchange of ideas at its own state institutions of higher learning?
The recent barring of Florida public university professors from testifying against the state in a voter rights case highlights the erosion of freedom of speech in its universities. Although this decision has been rescinded in response to protests and broad condemnation, it is hardly the only example of attempts to chill speech. Florida has instituted an annual viewpoint audit for its state universities. It almost certainly will provide an opportunity for Republican Governor Rick DeSantis and legislators to intervene under the banner of political diversity to push their own partisan agenda.
Particularly disturbing is the new Florida bill passed to authorize the recording of classes by students without the permission of professors. It is no accident that such class recordings are to be made even when faculty members object. Student recording is intended as a way to monitor what professors say to their students. Capturing allegedly liberal bias on tape is part of a broader agenda of surveillance emerging from a deep-seated belief on the political right that a variety of institutions (media, universities, civil society NGOs) are aligned against their fundamental principles—and, ultimately, it is intended to intimidate political opponents.
Recording without consent can have an extraordinary chilling effect not only on professors, but on students as well. The very possibility of student discussions being kept permanently and perhaps widely circulated will irrevocably alter the atmosphere of candid exchange at the core of intellectual inquiry. Classrooms are supposed to be places where new ideas, competing —sometimes disfavored opinions— are raised, and controversial topics openly discussed. “Scholarship cannot flourish,” the Supreme Court declared nearly 70 years ago, “in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.” Our current culture of denunciation reminds us how easily statements are quoted out of context. Who knows what comments made in a classroom might be used against a student years later?
Consider what might happen to an international student describing human rights abuses in their home country when an authoritarian regime hears the tape and targets the student or their family. Or imagine how a future judicial nominee might have embarrassing mistakes from years earlier recirculated in the midst of a confirmation process. A student who discusses controversial social issues concerning abortion, gender fluidity, racism, or civil liberties does so at the risk that their comments might resurface at a time when norms have changed or in ways that they might be misconstrued out of context. No genuine safeguards exist to prevent a student enrolled in a course from making further copies of recordings posted automatically online.
Until this point, general cultural norms protected speech in Connecticut’s public universities. But the threat of recorded classes—sometimes promoted by shortsighted administrators or students seeking convenience as well as those seeking to regulate the speech of others—poses a new threat that should be countered by legislation prohibiting classroom recording without the consent of instructors.
In the area of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Connecticut also has been lagging in its response. Conservative political groups have been demanding access to the email of faculty at public colleges by filing FOIA requests. FOIA was intended to provide transparency so the workings of government should be visible to its citizens. But FOIA has been used to lift statements from faculty email that involve scientific research over climate change, political observations made between colleagues, and responses to students that would otherwise be confidential. The purpose behind many of these FOIA requests is —as it is with classroom recording— to make a case for academic liberal bias.
As taxpayers, Connecticut citizens have every right to see how their tax dollars are being spent. Unpublished scientific research, frank and unvarnished discussions among scholars, and pedagogic discussions, however, are best left confidential. To publicize such material assembled from emails takes away a most fundamental form of human agency —deciding when thoughts are ready to be inscribed in a more permanent or widely circulating medium. Connecticut is ranked poorly among states in its protection of academic speech from unwarranted FOIA requests. The state legislature should consider a bill that creates a FOIA exception for deliberative processes, academic and scientific research, pedagogic materials and evaluation of student work, and trade secrets.
It is an unfortunate sign of our times that we need to consider new legislation to protect old liberties. But Florida’s example reminds Connecticut what it needs to defend.
Steven Wilf is a Professor of Global Commerce at the University of Connecticut Law School.