Freedom of double-speak

We’re back once again to flag just one of the many open, unembarrassed attacks on our democracy going on right now, and it’s clear that this is not going to stop until that work is accomplished, or an equally powerful bloc of pro-democracy Americans occupy positions of authority in federal, state, and local governments, in K-Ph.D. education, and in corporations.

This time, it’s the University of Florida: three of its political science department faculty submitted requests to serve as expert witnesses in court during a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new voting restriction law. UF released a “University statement on academic freedom and free speech” on October 20, 2021, that was short and not sweet:

Recent news reports have indicated the University of Florida denied requests of some faculty members to participate in a lawsuit over the state of Florida’s new election laws.

The University of Florida has a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom, and we will continue to do so. It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.

…the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution. What does this mean? One can quickly infer that it means “we don’t testify against the state government that funds us–our main interest is existing.” If we continue to browse UF Statements by Year, we see that on August 26, 2021, President Kent Fuchs included this paean in his state of the university address:

Despite the economic challenges faced by the State of Florida due to Covid, our elected officials invested even more in the University of Florida this past year, for which we are incredibly grateful.  In the past five years we are the only university in the nation to have increased the size of our faculty by 500, and this past year the Governor and the State Legislature invested additional funding in UF to further increase the size of the faculty, particularly in the area of artificial intelligence.  Although no new funds were provided for salary increases, the provost, vice presidents, and deans reallocated funds from existing budgets to provide compensation increases for both faculty and staff this year. 

So “incredibly grateful” is UF that it is paying back the favor by refusing to allow its faculty to testify against state voting policy. This inevitably leads one to wonder if that state financial support for UF was predicated on the State of Florida’s understanding that the gift would make UF (even more) unwilling to criticize any state laws. Fuchs has made no secret of his own sense of being a figurehead, saying in the same August 26 address that he could not issue a mask mandate: “I literally don’t have that power… within hours, another message would go out from someone to everyone, again saying we’ve been informed that there will be no such mandate. We’re part of the state government.”

State funding is meant to fuel the inquiry, knowledge creation, and intellectual work of a university. It’s not supposed to be a muzzle or a leash. It’s supposed to be freeing–instead of relying on private money, which is given at the whim of wealthy individuals, state universities get public funding that is regular, objective, and not predicated on the university doing what a few people want it to do. It receives public money in return for serving the public good.

If a state university will not allow its faculty to testify in a case against state policy, no matter the reason, then that university cannot logically refer people to its “long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom” and vow that “we will continue to do so” when they protest this shutdown of free speech and active democratic participation. This is just more of the open double-speak that is so hard to witness, so unbelievably brazen and acceptable and, it seems, often so persuasive to the American people.

It’s what Chief Judge Beryl Howell, FDC in Washington, DC, sharply rebuked on October 28, 2021:

“No wonder parts of the public in the U.S. are confused about whether what happened on January 6 at the Capitol was simply a petty offense of trespassing with some disorderliness, or shocking criminal conduct that represented a grave threat to our democratic norms,” Judge Beryl A. Howell said in court Thursday. “Let me make my view clear: The rioters were not mere protesters.”

Why, she asked, when prosecutors called the riot an “attack on democracy . . . unparalleled in American history,” were Griffith and other participants facing the same charge as nonviolent protesters who routinely disrupt congressional hearings?

“It seems like a bit of a disconnect,” Howell said – “muddled” and “almost schizophrenic.”

“Is it the government’s view that the members of the mob that engaged in the Capitol attack on January 6 were simply trespassers?” Howell asked incredulously. “Is general deterrence going to be served by letting rioters who broke into the Capitol, overran the police . . . broke into the building through windows and doors . . . resolve their criminal liability through petty offense pleas?”

She said it was also unusual that prosecutors were not asking for defendants to be under court supervision until they paid their fines. “This is the first time I’ve ever had the government ask for a restitution payment and not ask for a term of probation,” she said. “Is it because the government thinks these defendants are more trustworthy?”

…”In all my years on the bench, I’ve never been in this position before, and it’s all due to the government, despite calling this the crime of the century, resolving it with a . . . petty offense.”

The worst attack ever, slap on the wrist. Academic freedom, no testifying against the state. Killing our democracy, petty offense. We’re far beyond the stage of a foundation for dictatorship being laid. It’s been laid, the concrete has set, and the framing is going up. All Americans who value democracy in general, and our historic democracy in particular, need to be as active as the fascists are, to get into politics at all levels at the rates they do, to be as forceful in fighting for democracy as they are forceful in attacking it, and to stop letting anti-democratic Americans dominate policy, media, and society.

This is that email with the subject line that says ACTION REQUIRED. We don’t call for riots or bloodshed, which is just another thing that distinguishes us from anti-democracy activists. We call for legal action to take the place of the amazing inaction and bystandering that seems to characterize even those Americans who support our democracy.

It’s much like the latest environmental crisis: people watch it grow and grow, and they get scared, but they comfort themselves that some small group of people will fix it. Some scientist will come upon a solution. Someone will solve it. Someone else. This is partly the result of the last 150 years or so of medical and scientific exploration and development: there have been many, many times when a small group or even one individual did create or discover a cure or a solution–vaccines, non-aerosol dispensers, seat belts.

But we cannot all sit back and wait for some free individual or team to solve our national or global problems. To bring it back to American democracy, there are likely many opportunities for you, wherever you live, to take up the long, slow work of participating in local government. Wherever you live, you can join the fight to prevent anti-democratic Congresspeople from calling a new Constitutional Convention that, with the solid voting bloc formed by anti-democratic Republicans, would be sure to shred our Constitution and institute the same kind of dictatorship that other countries whose leaders have re-written their constitutions (Hungary, for example).

Never heard of the “Article V Convention” effort? Just put it into a search engine and you’ll find plenty about it–sharply divided into pro-Convention stories from right-wing orgs and anti-Convention stories from left-wing orgs.

Whatever you do, do something to defend democracy. You may be that individual or in that small group that could change things.

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