Ron DeSantis, public education and the authoritarian impulse

Ron DeSantis. Photo (cc) 2017 by Gage Skidmore.

Update: CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale reports that faculty and students would not be required to answer the survey, although colleges and universities will be required to administer it.

There isn’t a high-ranking elected official in the country today who embraces repression more than Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

DeSantis, a Republican who’s positioning himself to run for president in 2024 if Donald Trump doesn’t — or maybe even if he does — has a particular fixation on education, pushing through the state’s notorious “don’t say gay” law (which prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity) and, through his allies, banning three professors at the University of Florida from serving as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the state involving its restrictive voting-rights law (he backed down).

The latest outrage is a bill DeSantis signed into law this week that requires public universities to conduct a survey in which faculty members and students would be required asked to reveal their political beliefs. As Ana Ceballos reports in the Tampa Bay Times, the measure is part of DeSantis’ ongoing war against leftist beliefs on campus, and that “budget cuts could be looming if universities and colleges are found to be ‘indoctrinating’ students.” She quotes DeSantis as saying:

It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas. Unfortunately, now the norm is, these are more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.

Writing in Salon, Brett Bachman adds: “Based on the bill’s language, survey responses will not necessarily be anonymous — sparking worries among many professors and other university staff that they may be targeted, held back in their careers or even fired for their beliefs.”

Freedom of expression on college campuses has become a crusade on the right — yet it seems that the more grotesque examples of campus censorship come from the right, whether it be a campaign to delay tenure for the 1619 Project journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at the University of North Carolina, to Trump’s threat in 2019 to cut federal funds to institutions that failed to protect free speech as defined by him, to DeSantis’ various outbursts.

DeSantis is one of the most dangerous politicians in the U.S. — a smarter, more disciplined Trump who might very well win the 2024 election, especially given the media’s desire to normalize him and get back to the business of covering politics like a sporting event. His attempts to silence the academy ought to serve as a signal as to what he’s really all about: the unsmiling face of authoritarianism.

Mass. law governing legal ads needs to be updated to include digital-only outlets

Legal advertising has been a mainstay of the press since Colonial times. Official announcements of bids for government work, auctions and the like bring in a lot of revenue, and there were papers that were literally founded in order to be paid for publishing public notices.

But the future of legal ads in Massachusetts has come into question. State law requires that they be published in the print edition of a newspaper that circulates in the relevant city, town or county — and Gannett next month will be closing at least 19 local print weeklies after shutting down at least a half-dozen in 2021. Where will you publish legal ads?

I know that this has long been a thorn in the side of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit digital news outlet that would like to get its share of legals. Instead, those ads are published in Gannett’s Bedford Minuteman, whose paid circulation is less than 500, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. By contrast, the Citizen’s daily newsletter has more than 2,000 subscribers, and its website recorded some 133,000 users during the first half of 2021.

And now the Minuteman is closing. The assumption is that the legal ads will be run in The Sun of Lowell, a daily with virtually no presence in Bedford.

The current, confusingly worded law allows for the online publication of legal ads, but they must also be published in a print edition. State Rep. Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat, responded to my inquiry on Twitter by saying that he’s working with Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, D-Wellesley, to change that and allow for legals in digital-only publications.

Gannett also publishes the weekly Wellesley Townsman, which is not among the print weeklies that the chain will be closing. But who knows what the next round of cuts will bring? Moreover, Wellesley is home to the independent, online-only Swellesley Report, which would surely like a share of those legals. No doubt that’s part of what has piqued Rep. Peisch’s interest.

All of this comes at a time when the idea of publishing legal ads in news outlets is under assault. Why should the government subsidize journalism through advertising when it can publish legals for free on its own websites?

Florida is going through this right now. It was only recently that the state passed a law allowing government officials to advertise on news websites instead of in print newspapers if they so chose. But as Gretchen A. Peck recently reported in the trade publication Editor & Publisher, a proposal is being pushed through the state legislature that would allow for free publication on government websites instead.

The legislation has all the appearances of being part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war against the press. “This is just yet another of his red meat, hateful, harmful, hurtful pieces of legislation that he has been pushing this legislative session,” Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer told E&P.

But to get back to the question of why: The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, which maintains a database of legal ads published throughout the state, offers four reasons for publishing ads in news outlets rather than on government websites:

  • “They must be published in a forum independent of the government.
  • “The published notice must be preserved and secure in a tangible record that is archived.
  • “The notice must be conveniently accessible by all segments of society.
  • “The notice’s publication must be verifiable (by way of an affidavit of publication).”

In other words, the news-outlet requirement is an anti-corruption measure. If government is allowed to publish its own legal notices, who’s to say that some of them won’t be buried for some nefarious purpose? Who’s to say the wording won’t be changed?

The involvement of news organizations in legal ads is essential not just as a revenue stream but for ensuring that the government can’t engage in self-dealing. That said, the law needs to be updated. The print requirement has been an anachronism for years, and it’s only getting worse.

University of Florida backs down on speech ban

The University of Florida has backed down from its outrageous refusal to allow three of its professors to serve as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the state involving its restrictive new voting-rights law. NPR reports.

Earlier:

DeSantis allies block professors from testifying against voter-suppression law

Sledd Hall, University of Florida. Photo (cc) 1993 by Steven Martin.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had a problem. Three University of Florida professors wanted to serve as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit aimed at overturning the state’s new law restricting the right to vote.

But then the public university’s administration told the three that they would not be allowed to take part in the case. Problem solved.

This mind-blowing breach of academic freedom was reported by Michael Wines in today’s New York Times. Now, the ban may not hold. Wines interviews experts who say that it certainly violates guarantees of academic freedom and may violate the First Amendment as well.

But DeSantis and his minions have never let such niceties stand in their way. In June, he signed a bill that will require the state’s public colleges and universities to conduct an intrusive survey into the beliefs of students, faculty and staff. A month before that, he turned his signing of the voter-suppression bill into an exclusive event for Fox News. Both of those actions were clear violations of the First Amendment.

Then again, what does DeSantis care? He’s running for president, and there’s nothing more effective for a Republican politician than to attack academics and the media.

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Ron DeSantis’ latest stunt would make Joe McCarthy proud

Joseph McCarthy. Painting via the National Portrait Gallery.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s running hard for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, signed a bill this week that is a masterpiece of performative McCarthyism. Ana Ceballos of the Tampa Bay Times reports that the legislation will require the state’s public colleges and universities to conduct an intrusive survey into the beliefs of students, faculty and staff.

The survey, Ceballos writes, will be used to determine “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and whether “intellectual diversity” is supported on campus. The new law could be the basis for budget cuts “if universities and colleges are found to be ‘indoctrinating’ students,” according to Ceballos.

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Josh Kovensky of Talking Points Memo reports that, at a news conference following the signing, DeSantis castigated many colleges and universities as “intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.”

DeSantis’ action, needless to say, is a grotesque violation of the First Amendment. But that’s nothing new for him, as I’ve written previously.

DeSantis has also banned public school curriculum based on The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which he falsely calls “false history,” as well as instruction in critical race theory — an academic concept that, as Kovensky notes, has little to do with the diversity training and teaching about systemic racism that school systems actually engage in.

In a straw poll of potential 2024 candidates held last weekend at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, DeSantis narrowly beat Donald Trump, according to The Hill. But first he has to win re-election as governor.

Florida had been trending bluish in recent years but appears to be moving back into the Republican column based on the past several elections. Still, a number of Democrats are lining up to challenge DeSantis, including Democratic congressman Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor himself.

The problem with McCarthy-style populism is that it’s popular — until it isn’t. We’ll see how DeSantis’ latest attack on freedom of expression plays with Florida voters.

There he goes again: Why DeSantis’ Fox News stunt may be unconstitutional

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to give Fox News an exclusive as he signed his state’s new voter-suppression law was a sleazy piece of political gamesmanship. But was it unconstitutional? Maybe. A 1974 court ruling established the principle that government officials may not ban members of the press from events that are customarily open to the media. I wrote about it a year ago in a case involving — yes — DeSantis.

What makes this unusual is that the law envisions an official who singles out a specific reporter or news outlet for exclusion. DeSantis’ stunt involves the granting of special privileges to one news outlet. That’s generally allowed, as with agreeing to an interview. But a bill-signing is the sort of public event that is almost always open to the press, so it’s possible that DeSantis may have stepped in it again. Anyway, here’s my earlier item.

Florida governor’s ban on reporter violates the First Amendment

March 30, 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times from a news conference that was otherwise open to the press was a flat-out violation of the First Amendment.

Although the question of whether public officials can ban specific journalists from media events has never been taken up by the Supreme Court, a 1974 federal district court ruling is generally regarded as good law. I wrote about it a few years ago when a similar situation arose in New Hampshire.

Several decades ago, a similar situation unfolded in Hawaii, where an aggressive reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Richard Borreca butted heads with the mayor, Frank Fasi. Fasi decided to ban Borreca from regularly scheduled news conferences at his City Hall office. The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:

A free press is not necessarily an angelic press. Newspapers take sides, especially in political contests. Newspaper reporters are not always accurate and objective. They are subject to criticism, and the right of a governmental official to criticize is within First Amendment guarantees.

But when criticism transforms into an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.

Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.

The ‘60 Minutes’ report on DeSantis is an unusually clear case of liberal media bias

It’s a rare day when we encounter as blatant an example of liberal media bias as in the “60 Minutes” report last Sunday on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s not that the mainstream media aren’t broadly liberal — they are. But such bias normally affects things like story selection and tone, and does not interfere with a fair presentation of the facts. Unfortunately, the botched story on DeSantis, a Republican, will be cited by conservatives for a long time as evidence that you just can’t trust the media.

So what happened? “60 Minutes” reported that DeSantis awarded a contract to the supermarket chain Publix to distribute COVID vaccines after Publix had made a $100,000 campaign donation to the governor’s political action committee. The governor refused to give “60 Minutes” an interview. But in a confrontation at a DeSantis news conference, “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi asserted that the vaccine contract was a “reward” and asked him: “How is that not pay to play?”

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There are two problems here. First, the story accurately describes the quid but never manages to nail down the quo. It would be strange indeed if Publix did not make campaign contributions to DeSantis, as he is a major political figure. Large businesses do what they have to do to get along. Moreover, Publix stores would be obvious, logical places for administering vaccines.

The system was far from perfect. The report points out that, in some cases, Publix markets are far from communities of color, requiring two bus rides in one example. But that doesn’t prove DeSantis acted as he did because Publix had given him money. As media ethics expert Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute puts it:

In the story, there was a direct line between the campaign contribution and the rewarding. And they never proved that. I think they owe it to everybody — they owe it to the governor, they owe it to Publix, they owe it to the public — to explain to us how they came to that conclusion.

Second, having watched the news conference confrontation as edited for broadcast and compared it to the full, unedited version (above), I think it’s clear that DeSantis’ remarks were edited to cast him in the worst possible light. Journalists are free to use as little or as much as they like of an interview or, in this case, remarks at a news conference. But they are not free to edit those remarks in a way that changes their meaning or leaves out important context.

Among the people who have come to DeSantis’ defense, according to The Palm Beach Post, is Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat. “They are hellbent on dividing us for cheap views and clicks,” Kerner said in a written statement. “‘60 Minutes’ should be ashamed.” (Not every elected Democrat agrees with Kerner, including County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.)

I doubt the problems with this story were the result of liberal bias in the sense of deliberately making things up in order to make DeSantis look bad. Nor do I think it was the only form of bias at work. There is the bias for confrontation and controversy, which is the most pervasive type of media bias that there is. There is the bias in favor of producing a “gotcha” story.

As for how liberal bias figures into this, I would say — and this is only guesswork, of course — that “60 Minutes” decided DeSantis had done a bad job of managing the COVID pandemic in Florida, and that he had been getting undeserved praise for reopening the state at a time when numbers are continuing to rise. So when Alfonsi confronted DeSantis with the revelation about Publix’s campaign contribution, she and her crew had already come to a conclusion and were simply looking for some good video to go with it.

Which brings us to another form of bias. As one of my graduate students said, the story also looks like an example of confirmation bias. “60 Minutes” didn’t take the necessary steps to verify its story because no one could see any problems with it. And that may be the most pernicious effect of all when it comes to having a newsroom that is populated almost exclusively by liberals.

Trust in the media is scraping the bottom, especially among Republicans. The “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis certainly doesn’t help.

Florida governor’s ban on reporter violates the First Amendment

Ron DeSantis. Photo (cc) 2017 by Gage Skidmore.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times from a news conference that was otherwise open to the press was a flat-out violation of the First Amendment.

Although the question of whether public officials can ban specific journalists from media events has never been taken up by the Supreme Court, a 1974 federal district court ruling is generally regarded as good law. I wrote about it a few years ago when a similar situation arose in New Hampshire.

Several decades ago, a similar situation unfolded in Hawaii, where an aggressive reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Richard Borreca butted heads with the mayor, Frank Fasi. Fasi decided to ban Borreca from regularly scheduled news conferences at his City Hall office. The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:

A free press is not necessarily an angelic press. Newspapers take sides, especially in political contests. Newspaper reporters are not always accurate and objective. They are subject to criticism, and the right of a governmental official to criticize is within First Amendment guarantees.

But when criticism transforms into an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.

Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.

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