New State Legislation to Limit Staff and Faculty Language Around Social Justice Issues

“While many reporters do choose to remain anonymous, please understand that anonymity may affect FIU’s ability to conduct a thorough inquiry/investigation into your report since we will not be able to follow up with you for additional details or give you updates related to your report.” Extract from FIU’s HB-7 reporting form / PantherNOW Staff

Samuel Larreal | Staff Writer

On July 26 Kenneth Jessell, interim president of FIU, notified faculty and students of new legislation expanding the official definition of discrimination within public universities statewide. 

Officially titled The Individual Freedom Act, the bill was signed and approved by Governor Ron DeSantis on April 24.

This bill has the potential to interfere with campus freedom of speech and in cases of non-compliance could make FIU ineligible for state performance funding. 

In 2021, FIU received a total of $67,511,167 in Performance-Based Funding Allocation.

“Every professor, administrator and adjunct faculty member now has to review their courses’ content to make sure that they’re in compliance,” said Melba Pearson, civil rights attorney at FIU’s Center for the Administration of Justice.

Effective July 1, House Bill 7 or the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act”, states that “subjecting individuals to specified concepts under certain circumstances constitutes discrimination.”  

The bill intends to recontextualize discrimination based on sex, race, skin color and national origin and revise standards regarding “required instruction on the history of African Americans.”

These concepts, as defined by the Florida Board of Governors, prohibit obligatory staff training, or courses that cause any form of psychological distress for actions committed by a person’s own “race, color sex or national identity.”

“[The Individual Freedom Act] is so subjective with regards to compliance because of how open for interpretation some of the language is,” said Pearson. 

According to Pearson, the bill’s language has the potential to obstruct the teaching of culturally loaded issues like slavery. 

“History needs us to talk openly about the history of what happened, and how that can impact different aspects of our society today, because the reality is, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it,” said Pearson.

Although The Individual Freedom Act states that it “does not prohibit discussion of the concepts as part of a larger course of training or instruction, provided such training or instruction is given in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts,” for Pearson objectivity is a hard concept to define in a classroom environment.  

“How can you truly talk about slavery without endorsing one side or the other? You can’t neutrally talk about the theft of indigenous lands and the destruction of whole populations of indigenous people,” said Pearson. “To teach the history is to say ‘this is what happened,’ but also to say that what happened was wrong.” 

The bill also limits discussions around unconscious racism or sexism, meritocracy, and concepts like racial color-blindness. 

According to the Individual Freedom Act, stating that “A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” constitutes discrimination. 

The bill considers instructors discussing the possible oppressive, racist or sexist connotations of “virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness” as engaging in discriminatory practices.

Members of the FIU Office of the Provost, General Counsel, Human Resources, and Faculty Leadership & Success will provide workshops and training sessions to help professors to understand the new policy and navigate its limitations before the fall semester starts. 

According to an email sent to FIU’s teaching staff by Dr. Heather Russell, The Center for the Advancement of Teaching will provide support sessions to help faculty teaching ‘ high-impact courses’ edit syllabi, discussion prompts and direct discussions around new state regulations.

Screenshot of HB-7 training email / PantherNOW Staff

According to Russel “FIU remains committed to presenting fact-based content and encouraging free and open discourse that is respectful of multiple perspectives.”

However, The Individual Freedom Act requires that universities create a platform to submit complaints of discrimination according to the bill’s definitions. Although discouraged, these complaints can be submitted anonymously. 

“While many reporters do choose to remain anonymous, please understand that anonymity may affect FIU’s ability to conduct a thorough inquiry/investigation into your report since we will not be able to follow up with you for additional details or give you updates related to your report.”  

The Individual Freedom Act requires that public universities engage in the modification of instructors’ content for regulation compliance. In the case of staff refusing to comply the bill encourages their contract termination. 

Failure to comply with these new state regulations can result in the loss of state performance funding. 

“If the Board of Governors determines that a university willfully and knowingly engaged in conduct at the institutional level that constituted a substantiated violation of section 1000.05(4)(a), Florida Statutes, and failed to take appropriate corrective action, the university will be ineligible for performance funding for the next fiscal year”