Don’t use power of state funds to propagate partisan views
Two bills that would use the power of state spending to advance political views are unlikely to pass, but their very existence is a blot on Florida and an affront to freedom of thought.
One bill seeks to force state colleges and universities to survey students about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” with the aim of boosting conservatism on campus. It carries an implicit threat of funding cuts to schools if opinions on campus don’t meet political aims. The Florida Senate Education Committee approved that bill last week.
The other bill seeks to bar state agencies and Florida’s local governments from contracts with Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Alphabet unless the companies’ platforms add conservative voices and get Donald Trump back on Twitter – yes, that’s the ransom that sponsors demand.
The little-known bills masquerade as advancing freedom, yet both would point a gun to propagate their views.
Both bills have a basic flaw: you can’t force people to believe as you do. You can persuade them to believe, but you can’t force them to.
On the other hand, you can indeed force people to behave as you want them to. In communist Cuba that’s done by threat of taking away food allotment cards or jailing. In Tallahassee, the threat is to remove university funds and tech contracts.
The sponsors of the bills in Florida’s Senate are Ray Rodrigues of Estero, who for a third time is trying to probe minds in higher education, and Joe Gruters of Sarasota, chairman of the state Republican Party, who is threatening to punish tech companies for not airing enough views he likes.
Both men have stepped far away from the legitimate aim of persuading us of ideas, as is done in winning votes. They want to force us to act as they dictate, as was tried in storming the Capitol.
Both lay claim to free speech and free thought. Seldom has the grand concept of freedom been subverted by such unacceptable pressure tactics.
Sen. Gruters made crystal clear the weapon he brandishes: companies can avoid state sanctions, he said, by “not suppressing conservative voices…. It’s letting people like president Trump back on Twitter. It’s letting people like the 70,000 conservative voices that have already been suppressed back on Twitter.”
In other words, Florida would spend taxes to aid instigators and groups that were banned from media after the Washington insurrection.
Mr. Gruters’ restrictions in support of questionable fringe groups, if passed, would be painful to the state and local governments that could no longer deal with five pivotal media giants. But a loss of Florida government business would be only a tiny blip in the sales totals of the global firms, which would feel little pain.
Truly, what masquerades as freedom of speech and thought in these two bills is a pure power play seeking to control messages at universities and tech companies in order to amplify one group’s ideas.
A quest for louder voices would be legitimate if it didn’t wield state-sponsored penalties for media and the threat of state funding cuts at universities.
The aim is no secret: Mr. Rodrigues complains conservatives have been “shouted down” at campus speeches. So he wants viewpoints surveyed and tallied.
Yet for three years since he first proposed this travesty he has said he doesn’t know what the survey information would be used for – and the bill doesn’t mention use. Spend money to survey, spread fear of a legislature that controls the purse strings, but have no idea why you’re doing it? Come on.
My objection is not only to conservative force plays. Forcibly amplifying liberal views via state law would be equally wrong. When the shoe is on the left foot it’s just as ill-fitting for those who believe in free ideas.
Would those pushing conservatism make the same arguments to get socialist or communist ideas onto campus or into the media? If so, I’d respect their commitment to variety, even though forcing others to air views is wrong.
Let me be clear: in normal times committed conservatives and committed liberals alike agree that free expression is a cornerstone of this nation.
But freedom does not mean government may amplify some ideas by force. Nor does it give anyone the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater or to scream “election theft” on a crowded Capitol plaza. That’s beyond freedom; that’s mayhem.
State penalties for not airing favored voices is the tactic of dictators – think Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, North Korea and China. It should distress conservatives that legislators back the methods of leftist dictatorships when it suits their purposes.
Freedom of speech and ideas does not mean forcibly tipping the balance – it wins by its own persuasive power.
Sen. Rodrigues’ university survey should fail again. Who would assess opinions from each campus and interpret what they show about academic thought? Which opinions would get a college or university more funds and which could cost it money? Anyone academically qualified to assess such surveys would want no part of doing so. This plan is not freedom but dictatorship over ideas.
In 1925, Tennessee tried to punish educator John Scopes for teaching evolution, which state law then said did not exist. Today evolution is accepted science.
That’s precisely why intellectual freedom and freedom of speech are so vital, and why state efforts to control ideas – on the left or the right – are dead wrong. Florida must evolve.