Ahead of Newsom-DeSantis debate, watchdog compares California and Florida free speech

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is due to debate California Gov. Gavin Newsom later this week about whose state offers a better model for the country, is leading an “assault on free expression in Florida” that is “almost without peer in recent U.S. history,” a watchdog warned in a pair of reports released Tuesday.

PEN America, which defends the rights of authors and others around the world to write and speak out without fear of government reprisals, has written detailed reviews comparing the two states’ recent policies and proposals on campus speech codes, book bans, curriculum fights, diversity and inclusion, internet freedom and other 1st Amendment issues in the interstate feud between DeSantis, a Republican, and Newsom, a Democrat.

The two men, whose states wield outsized influence on the right and left, are set to debate on Fox News Thursday night. DeSantis is hoping the debate jump-starts his flailing presidential campaign while Newsom has been trying to maintain his national stature amid speculation he will run in 2028.

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The PEN report finds fault with both states’ policies but reserves its harshest judgment for DeSantis, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination as a culture warrior on the slogan that Florida is the state “where woke goes to die.” The states’ policies have implications beyond their borders; most of the bills the report analyzed have been adopted in other states, and California is home to tech and entertainment industries with global reach.

“Florida is setting an agenda of unprecedented censorship, rigging the system to favor the speech of those in power and silencing dissenting voices,” the PEN report states.

Authors, journalists and others who care about free expression have to pay attention to both states, in part because of their governors’ ambitions and willingness to push barriers at a time when states are leading most of the big culture war fights, said Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive, in an interview.

“If you want to see where free speech is headed in this country, you have to take a close look at what they’re doing,” she said.

The report details several bills that have been proposed or passed in the Florida Legislature in recent years, most of which were supported by DeSantis.

They include the well-known bill that critics label “Don’t Say Gay,” which limits discussion of sexual orientation in classrooms, rules limiting the discussion of race in public colleges and universities, bills making it easier to ban books based on parental objections and those targeting mass protests with enhanced criminal penalties and drag shows.

Some of the bills have been blocked by courts, but the report argues that they still represent a threat to free expression because they create an immediate chilling effect, could ultimately withstand court challenges and are already inspiring new laws and proposals in Florida and elsewhere that could accomplish the same goals.

The drag show bill, which broadens the state’s obscenity law to apply to some live performances, was temporarily put on hold by a federal judge in central Florida this month after a restaurant sued.

“Regardless of how the courts rule, the Act has already chilled LGBTQ+ expression in the state,” the PEN authors wrote, citing canceled pride events in southeast Florida and central Florida and the dissolution of a drag storytime chapter in Miami.

DeSantis has accused critics of falsifying his record and creating “political theater,” insisting, for example, that he has expanded African American history requirements in Florida schools, even as the state placed limits on teaching about systemic racism. In the case of the drag show bill, he said it was targeted at “sexually explicit” performances.

“People can do what they want with some of that, but to have minors there, I mean, you’ll have situations where you’ll have like an 8-year-old girl there, where you have these like really explicit shows, and that is just inappropriate,” he said at a May news conference.

James Tager, research director of PEN America and co-author of the reports, said it was important to be “clear-eyed” and “send a warning signal” about Florida’s direction, given DeSantis’ political ambitions.

“Florida holds itself as a blueprint for a more of free way of living, championing the rhetoric of liberty,” Tager said. “Several of their significant proposals, the primary effect is to degrade and winnow down free expression rights in the state.”

Though Florida took the brunt of PEN’s criticism, California’s laws drew more limited scrutiny.

The report credits California with “unambiguous wins for free expression” for passing laws to protect journalists covering protests and restricting the ability of courts to allow rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials.

But it faults the state for what it labels well-intended misses, including a law that requires social media companies to produce regular reports on their content moderation to the state attorney general. The authors argue that the law, though ambiguous in defining the attorney general’s role, could give the government more power to regulate speech.

The report also cautions that a law intended to protect children on social media and other online platforms could chill free speech because it “requires businesses to predict any content or practice that lawmakers could consider to be ‘harmful’” to children. Tech industry and publishing groups have also opposed the law as overly broad, warning it could hinder content intended for adults.

Newsom said when he signed it that the state “will not stand by as social media is weaponized to spread hate and disinformation.”

The report also criticizes the state for a policy approved last year by the Board of Governors of California’s community college system that would evaluate college professors, in part, on their commitment to teaching anti-racist ideas untended to foster “diversity, equity and inclusion.” The policy has drawn a lawsuit from a group of professors.

“There is a difference between protecting a school’s or faculty member’s right to include DEI programming, and mandating that they do so, especially in higher education,” the authors wrote.

The organization labels the policy a “gag order,” arguing that it limits a professor’s academic freedom by forcing them to adopt the college system’s viewpoint.

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