Rights Behind the Headlines: Gov. DeSantis's policies restrict students’ freedom to learn in our schools 

Rights Behind the Headlines is a new blog series from the ACLU of Florida that dispels misinformation and gives Floridians critical information about the most pressing issues facing our state. Read the full series at aclufl.org/rightsbehindtheheadlines  

Today, we’re dispelling claims made by Gov. DeSantis related to the “indoctrination” of students in Florida’s education system in defense of his anti-First Amendment law, House Bill 7. House Bill 7 bans Florida educators, students, and employers from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender in classrooms and workplaces. Read the headline from the Miami Herald here: Teachers alarmed by state’s infusing religion, downplaying race in civics training

The First Amendment protects our right to share information and ideas, and this includes educators’ and students’ right to learn, discuss, and debate issues around race. Education is only education if students are allowed to think critically, challenge, and discuss by engaging in a free exchange of ideas.

And yet, the 2022 school year in Florida began by eliminating the freedom Americans have enjoyed to exchange ideas in the classroom without political interference.  

When talks of classroom censorship bills like House Bill 7 (HB 7) first began, civil liberties organizations warned that the nature of the proposed language in the bills was extremely vague, thus allowing them to be used to censor speech at the whim of a single politician’s personal preference. Gov. DeSantis signed HB 7 despite widespread opposition, which continues to this day. Across the country, 17 states, including Florida, have introduced similar legislation that restricts how history and race are taught in our schools. 

Since then, classroom instruction has already been replaced with state-sponsored propaganda that forces educators to erase key nuances and context, thus preventing students from obtaining a full understanding of our country’s history. Teachers from South Florida to North Florida blew the whistle over the summer on the Florida Department of Education’s civics training, which misled students about the complex history of the country’s founding and slavery.

The new rules don’t just target these important moments in American history. HB 7 also penalizes Black students and educators for sharing their lived experiences in the state. Such important history that would be impacted includes the Groveland Four lynchings and the police killing of Arthur McDuffie in Miami. Even our podcast, At Liberty, under this law, might not be allowed to be heard in schools. 

In August, the ACLU of Florida, ACLU, and LDF sued the state on behalf of students and educators to protect their freedom of speech and right to learn. Plaintiffs in the suit similarly expressed concern with the government’s growing conflation between supposed “appropriateness” and the teaching of Black history. 

The free expression of ideas and the ability to form one’s own beliefs is an American value as old as the country’s founding itself. Failing to understand our history only dooms us to repeating the same mistakes. Students have a right to learn history accurately. Educators should be able to do their jobs. 

Gov. DeSantis should not be imposing his preferred curriculum at the expense of Floridians’ First Amendment rights and history itself.