Governor DeSantis has pushed through laws that ban the teaching of “critical race theory” and gender studies. The effect of this law and his denunciation of anyone who dares to say that racism is real has been to silence academic freedom. This article in ProPublica (Read the story) shows how professors are dropping the courses they usually teach or changing their names. Untenured teachers— the majority of professors in higher education in Florida and elsewhere worry about being fired if they offend DeSantis’ thought police.

Ironically, the story includes a photograph of a truck owned by a rightwing group, festooned with the words “Freedom of Speech.” To be clear, DeSantis and his rightwing goons are silencing academic freedom and freedom of speech. They are the Thought Police, practicing “cancel culture.”

The article begins:

Jonathan Cox faced an agonizing decision. He was scheduled to teach two classes this past fall at the University of Central Florida that would explore colorblind racism, the concept that ostensibly race-neutral practices can have a discriminatory impact. The first, “Race and Social Media,” featured a unit on “racial ideology and color-blindness.” The second, “Race and Ethnicity,” included a reading on “the myth of a color-blind society.” An assistant sociology professor, Cox had taught both courses before; they typically drew 35 to 40 undergraduates apiece.

As recently as August 2021, Cox had doubted that the controversy over critical race theory — which posits, among other things, that racism is ingrained in America’s laws and power structure — would hamstring his teaching. Asked on a podcast what instructors would do if, as anticipated, Florida restricted the teaching of CRT in higher education, he said that they would need to avoid certain buzzwords. “What many of us are looking at doing is just maybe shifting some of the language that we’re using.”

But a clash with state law seemed inevitable, once Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, proposed what he called the strongest legislation in the nation against “the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory.” Last April, DeSantis signed the Individual Freedom Act, also known as the “Stop Woke Act,” into law. It bans teaching that one race or gender is morally superior to another and prohibits teachers from making students feel guilty for past discrimination by members of their race. And it specifically bars portraying racial colorblindness — which the law labels a virtue — as racist. A DeSantis spokesperson, Jeremy Redfern, told me in an email that the law “protectsthe open exchange of ideas” (italics in the original) by prohibiting teachers from “forcing discriminatory concepts on students.”

Whatever one thinks of critical race theory, the state’s interference limits the freedom of professors who are experts in their fields to decide what to teach their students. Cox worried, not without reason, that the law effectively banned him from discussing his ideas in class, and that teaching the courses could cost him his livelihood. Cox, who is the only Black professor in the sociology department, will not be considered for tenure until this fall. His salary was his family’s only income while his wife stayed home with their baby.

A month before the fall 2022 semester was set to start, he scrapped both courses. Students scrambled to register for other classes. “It didn’t seem like it was worth the risk,” said Cox, who taught a graduate course on inequality and education instead. “I’m completely unprotected.” He added, “Somebody who’s not even in the class could come after me. Somebody sees the course catalog, complains to a legislator — next thing I know, I’m out of a job.”

Cox’s decision, along with another professor’s cancellation of a graduate course because of similar apprehension, created an unusual gap in the sociology curriculum at UCF, which, with almost 69,000 students, is Florida’s largest university.

Cox’s department chair, Elizabeth Mustaine, said she went along with the professors’ wishes because “I thought: ‘I’m not going to stress anyone out about this. It’s crazy.’” Still, she added, “it’s an absolute tragedy that classes like this get canceled.” Of the 39 courses offered this past fall by a department that specializes in the study of human society, none focused primarily on race.

In just over two years, critical race theory has gone from a largely obscure academic subject to a favorite bogeyman for Republican candidates. Activists such as Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, conceived of targeting CRT to foment a backlash against measures enacted following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. At that time, Rufo told me in an email, “school districts across the country suddenly started adopting ‘equity statements,’ hiring ‘diversity and inclusion’ bureaucrats, and injecting heavily partisan political content into the curriculum.” Black Lives Matter and the left were riding high, said Rufo, who denies that structural racism exists in America. In our email exchange, Rufo described “the fight against critical race theory” as “the most successful counterattack against BLM as a political movement. We shifted the terrain and fought on a vector the Left could not successfully mobilize against.”

The anti-CRT campaign quickly expanded from sloganeering to writing laws. Seven states, including Florida, have passed legislation aimed at restricting public colleges’ teaching or training related to critical race theory. Those laws face impediments. On Nov. 17, 2022, a federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the higher-education provisions of Florida’s Individual Freedom Act. “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,” Judge Mark Walker wrote. The DeSantis administration filed a notice of appeal on Nov. 29 and is seeking to stay the injunction pending that appeal. The 11th Circuit, where most of the judges are Republican appointees, will hear the appeal, with briefs to be filed in the next few months and oral arguments potentially this coming summer.

Additionally, with DeSantis’ landslide reelection — after a campaign in which he repeatedly denounced “woke” education — and Republicans gaining a supermajority in both chambers of the state’s Legislature, they are likely to look for new ways to crack down on CRT and what they perceive as higher education’s leftist tilt. And at the federal level, conservatives are drafting a “potential suite of executive orders in 2024,” in case the next presidential election goes their way, to “disrupt the national network of left-wing ideological production and distribution,” according to Rufo.

It’s easy to dismiss the conservative crusade against critical race theory as political theater without real consequences. But most colleges and universities offer social science and humanities courses that address racial inequality and systemic racism, and the anti-CRT laws are already having repercussions for people who teach or take these classes in red states. Moreover, the push against CRT is hitting academia after decades of declines in the proportion of professors protected by tenure, meaning that most faculty members are not in positions secure enough to resist political pressure. Now, forced to consider whether they face any legal or career risk, some are canceling courses or watering down content, keeping quiet rather than sharing their expertise with students.

“When you implement a law like this, you’re asking professors to leave out things that clearly happen or have happened in the past,” Grace Castelin, a UCF undergraduate who plans to introduce a resolution in the student senate condemning the law, told me. “It’s making us more ignorant in this generation and generations to come.”

Fearful that legislators will retaliate by cutting their budgets, few top university administrators have publicly criticized the laws, which put institutions as well as individual teachers at risk. Indeed, UCF Provost Michael Johnson told faculty last July that the university would “have to take disciplinary action” against any faculty member who repeatedly violated the Individual Freedom Act because it couldn’t afford to lose a “catastrophic amount” — $32 million — in state funding linked to graduation rates and other metrics. (Johnson declined an interview request.)

Other states have left professors similarly undefended. In Tennessee, which passed a law much like Florida’s, the provost of the state university’s flagship Knoxville campus made clear to professors that the administration wouldn’t necessarily help them. If they were sued under the law, Provost John Zomchick told faculty, Tennessee’s Republican attorney general would decide whether the university would represent them in court. “People freaked out,” said Anne Langendorfer, a senior lecturer at UT Knoxville and the president of a union for campus workers at the state’s public universities.

A university spokesperson, Kerry Gardner, said that the attorney general makes the final decision in “any situation” where individuals are sued in their capacity as university employees. Administrators “wanted to be fully transparent about how the process works,” while assuring faculty that “we will take every step to defend them,” Gardner said. Zomchick, she added, “does not agree with the view of some faculty” that the law “infringes on the First Amendment or academic freedoms.”

With uncertain support from above, most full and associate professors at least enjoy the protection of tenure, which shields scholars whose insights or research are politically unpopular. Tenured professors can’t be fired without cause and a hearing by their peers. Other faculty typically work on contracts, which the university can decide not to renew without specifying a reason.

Some tenured professors in Florida have resisted anti-CRT pressure. The historian Robert Cassanello, the president of the UCF chapter of United Faculty of Florida, was comfortable becoming a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits contending that the Individual Freedom Act violates free speech. Cassanello, who keeps a life-size cutout of Karl Marx in his office window, told me that he’s less threatened by the law than his untenured colleagues are.

Robert Cassanello, a tenured professor, teaches history at the University of Central Florida and became a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a state law that restricts the teaching of critical race theory. (Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic)

By contrast, Juan Salinas, an assistant sociology professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, declined to be a plaintiff. “For me to stick my name out, I didn’t feel comfortable,” Salinas said. “If I had tenure, I would be more active.”

But even having tenure didn’t feel like “adequate protection” to Scott Carter, the other UCF sociologist who scrapped a course on race in the fall semester. “It’s very sad for students,” Carter told me. “They won’t get the experience of hearing from scholars on contemporary race relations.”