Public debates of “contested public policy issues” will begin at Florida’s public universities in 2024 with new law

Mallory Pace, News Editor

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Monday that requires state universities to hold public debates or group forums that address divergent and opposing perspectives on relevant, widely discussed issues.

Under this new law, starting in 2024, state universities will be required to annually host four debates or group forums addressing opposing sides of the “most widely discussed public policy issues of the day” from speakers who hold a diversity of perspectives from within and outside the university community.

Suppose the university is unable to find an advocate from within the university community. In that case, the office shall provide speakers from outside the state university community with per diem and reimbursement for travel expenses.

The bill defines debate as “an event at which two or more participants speak in favor of opposing approaches to the same public policy dispute, after which each participant is allotted time to address and rebut the position presented by the opposing speakers.” 

The bill does not define or describe what constitutes a speaker of diverse perspectives, nor what is specifically considered a widely discussed public policy issue.

Each state university will also be required to create an “Office of Public Policy Events” and an appointed director to organize, publicize and stage said debates or group forums at the university.  

State universities will be required to hold two debates or group forums during each fall and spring semester. Each debate and group forum must be open to all students, faculty and staff of the university, “and, unless restricting attendance to such event is necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest, to the general public.”

The office must also maintain a permanent, publicly accessible and updated calendar in print on the office’s website and state university’s website, listing all events and detailed information related to the events sponsored by the office. 

Upon approval of the institution’s board of trustees and Board of Governors, a state university may assign the duties of the Office of Public Policy Events to an existing administrative office within the university, rather than establishing a new, separate office.

This bill was passed alongside SB 266, which bars public universities from spending state and federal funds on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, fulfilling DeSantis’s pledge to defund such programs.

Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Assessment

The bill also includes amendments to the 2021 bill requiring public universities to survey their students, faculty and staff each year, which was met with pushback from the United Faculty of Florida, who later filed a lawsuit against the bill calling it an “attack on academic freedom.”

Like the 2021 bill, the State Board of Education will select or create an “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey” for each university to measure the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented at the institution. The survey also aims to find the extent to which members of the college community feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom. 

However, the new bill does not include the past requirement that the State Board of Education cannot “shield” students, faculty or staff in Florida from free speech protected under the First Amendment. 

In the past version, shield means “to limit students’, faculty members’, or staff members’, access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive,” according to the bill’s language.  

The State Board of Education will be required to annually compile and publish the assessments by Dec. 31 of each year, beginning on Dec. 31, 2024.


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