Surveys aimed at gauging “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on college and university campuses are on track to go out to students and employees Monday, after a federal judge refused to block the state from distributing the questionnaires.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Friday rejected a request by opponents for an injunction against the surveys.
Lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis last year approved a law (HB 233) requiring schools to distribute the surveys annually. But the measure drew a legal challenge from the United Faculty of Florida union and other opponents who argued that it violates the First Amendment.
With the surveys set to hit email inboxes for the first time Monday morning, attorneys for the opponents filed an emergency motion asking for a preliminary injunction.
During a hearing Friday, Walker expressed skepticism about the plaintiffs’ arguments. For instance, attorneys for the opponents asserted that the survey results could be used by the Republican-controlled Legislature to “suss out” which campuses have the most liberal-leaning beliefs.
Lawmakers could then take actions in retribution, such as cutting funding to certain colleges or universities, the attorneys said.
“Can’t they (state lawmakers) do exactly what you’re talking about without the survey?” Walker asked.
George Levesque, an attorney representing the state, said the law “is not about trying to balance ideologies” at Florida’s colleges and universities and that simply ignoring the surveys is an option.
“There is no restriction, there is no right being denied, based on filling out the survey or not,” Levesque said.
But Alexi Velez, a lawyer for the survey opponents, characterized the law as having a potential chilling effect on students’ and faculty members’ speech.
“We have a First Amendment claim even if no funding is cut,” Velez said, adding that the “harm” of chilling speech would be immediate upon surveys going out.
Velez also said “there is every reason to believe” that the identities of people filling out the surveys could be determined. Particularly at smaller institutions like state colleges, Velez argued, a respondent could be identified by basic demographic information that a survey asks.
But Walker said there is virtually no legal precedent for “any instance of any court” striking down an anonymous, voluntary survey.
In denying the request for an injunction, Walker made clear that the opponents could appeal his decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“This is certainly a case where I would welcome them explaining why I’m wrong,” Walker said.
The online questionnaires will open Monday at one minute past midnight, state university system Chancellor Marshall Criser said this week.
Results from the survey responses will be collected by the schools and reported to state leaders by September.
Meanwhile, the legal battle over whether the surveys violate free-speech rights is slated to continue later this year, as Walker has scheduled a trial to start Sept. 19.
Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly newsletters, and consider supporting this free publication. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you Central Florida news, and every little bit helps.