This op-ed first appeared in Florida Phoenix. 

Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis has assumed the rank of general in the nation’s culture wars.

Through his rhetoric and political actions on both LGBTQ+ and racial justice issues, he has used the power of his office to attack communities in Florida at the expense of Florida’s schools, students and families, and our First Amendment rights.

But all wars, even cultural ones, bring with them collateral damage.

Key examples are bills championed by DeSantis, passed by the 2022 Florida Legislature, and their negative effects on state schools. When teachers and students returned to class this fall, they faced new, unprecedented pressures to restrict their speech and refrain from having open and inclusive conversations about race and gender, in order to avoid lawsuits that can be brought under those laws.

A censorship law was passed allowing parents to sue whenever a discussion of American history makes their children uncomfortable. House Bill 7 restricts discussion of the endemic racial and gender discrimination that is and has historically been part of our society, and it does so not only in K-12 schools, but also in state colleges and universities, and in trainings offered by private employers.

Thankfully, a court blocked the enforcement of HB 7 in higher education in mid-November. The lawsuit, which was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Florida, the Legal Defense Fund, and Ballard Spahr, argued that HB 7 violated the First Amendment right to free speech in classrooms and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause as the language quite openly targeted Black educators and students.

When ruling on the order, the court lambasted the law, writing, “The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints. Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves.

This is positively dystopian. It should go without saying that ‘[i]f liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’”

Similarly, House Bill 1557 inhibits discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools and allows any parent to bring a lawsuit if they feel any such discussion is inappropriate. The question teachers and administrators must ask themselves now is: How do you make sure students feel welcome and safe in class without risking a lawsuit from parents who think any conversations regarding LGBTQ+ people are “inappropriate”?  One misstep would mean a costly lawsuit from a parent who disagrees.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ students must ask themselves: Who can I confide in if I need support but know my parents will reject me?

School librarians also find themselves facing new risks.

House Bill 1467 encourages parents or other residents to pursue the banning of school library books. These cases often target books about sexual identity and race. After HB 1467 went into effect, schools canceled book fairs and declined book donations – even dictionaries.

This concerning practice of using schoolchildren as a pretext to attack free speech continued as recently as November. Ahead of the 2023 legislative session, the Department of Management Services proposed new rules to remove protesters from the state Capitol and charge them with trespassing if law enforcement subjectively deemed chants and other displays as inappropriate for kids.

But who decides what is inappropriate for kids is extremely vague and instead, these rules enable Capitol police to censor viewpoints in support of LGBTQ+ youth and families. These rules would have negatively impacted protests against HB 1557 earlier this year.

“These laws are problematic because they are vague,” says Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the union representing 150,000 teachers and support staff.

“We are being asked by teachers, ‘How do we interpret these laws so that we don’t get in trouble?’,” Spar says. “If I’m teaching a curriculum that includes slavery and a kid feels uncomfortable, the parents have recourse against the school. If a kid comes to me and says, ‘I’m being bullied because I’m gay, but my parents don’t know I’m gay, so I need help,’ I absolutely need to protect that kid from bullying, but what do I do?  And if the district gets sued, then I assume they will be looking at me, the teacher, and I have to worry about my job.”

Spar said teachers are feeling threatened, in particular teachers who themselves are part of the LGBTQ+ community.

“They feel they are being forced out,” he said.

The fact that experienced teachers feel that way is extremely bad news for Florida.

According to the teachers’ union, as of late August, Florida schools were reporting a shortage of 6,006 teachers in the public school system and 4,765 vacancies for other school support staff.

Florida already has the disadvantage of being 48th out of 50 states in average teacher salary, according to the National Education Association. Giving teachers even more reasons to not want to work in Florida is the last thing the state needs.

“Under Gov. DeSantis, teachers hear their profession demeaned on a regular basis,” Spar said.” When Florida has a governor who respects educators and students, regardless of their race, income, ZIP code or sexual orientation, then Florida’s students will truly thrive.”

The culture war battles being waged in Florida are not only doing lasting damage to our public education system but to the basic constitutional rights of all Floridians. Our freedom of speech protects our right to think our own thoughts, debate ideas and question authority.

It is clear these threats to our civil liberties are being advanced for personal political gain.

Floridians must not allow the government to suppress First Amendment rights in the classroom without a fight.