Florida classroom camera bill threatens educators’ free speech
A new bill advancing in the Florida Legislature this year would allow for audio and video recordings from inside public K-12 classrooms. If implemented by their district, House bill 1055 would require teachers to wear microphones during class sessions, making footage of teachers and students readily available for principals’ oversight.
Spearheaded by Rep. Bob Rommel, a Republican from Naples, the bill is designed to document instances of “abuse or neglect” against students by teachers or other students. If such an instance occurred, the parents of those involved would be granted access to the recordings, while students outside the scope of the investigation would be blurred from the footage.
This proposal, however, is part of a greater wave of legislation passing over the Florida education system this year. After Florida’s Board of Education banned critical race theory last June, and with the Parental Rights in Education, or “Don’t Say Gay,” bill that restricts classroom discussions of sexuality and gender passing through the state senate, a question is raised as to whether ideological trespasses will now be considered actionable offenses with teachers under constant surveillance.
“The proposal to remotely monitor classrooms is a dangerous slide toward authoritarianism,” Brandon Wolf said, a representative for Equality Florida. “It's part of a broader agenda of censorship and surveillance being championed by Gov. DeSantis and his allies right now.”
This movement within the education landscape can be contextualized by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which remote learning awarded parents a front-row experience into their child’s education. As students continue to return to in-person classes, such legislation not only maintains this level of accessibility, but seeks to enforce parental discretion. The Parental Rights in Education bill, for example, specifically empowers parents to seek injunctive relief if teachers fail to comply with the state’s curricular parameters.
“For every bit of sympathy we have for parents having right over how their child is educated, there's an equal and countervailing concern that parents can’t micromanage the classroom,” James Todd said, an attorney and professor of American Politics, Freedom in American Society and constitutional law at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Classroom surveillance would armor parents with a heckler’s veto, illustrating the bill’s fundamental issue: By failing to enumerate the kinds of behavior that the state would consider “abuse or neglect,” critics fear that this bill could have a chilling effect on teachers’ free speech.
“The speaker doesn't know what he or she could be held legally responsible for, so they’ll just censor themselves,” Todd said. “It (HB 1055) could be ruled unconstitutional unless the state cleans up this definition of ‘abuse.’”
Proponents of the bill argue that this is a natural evolution for classrooms, seeing the advancements in education technology, sparked by the pandemic, as tools to exercise existing government jurisdiction, since public school teachers are considered government employees. While it’s true that speech is only protected by the First Amendment when government employees are speaking as private individuals, compulsory recordings and ideological censorship are at odds with legal precedent.
“Even if controlling teachers' classroom discussions on race and gender does not violate the Free Speech Clause, it is certainly contrary to free speech values,” Caroline Corbin said, a constitutional law professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
A 1943 opinion from Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, a landmark free speech case that found public schools’ compulsory flag-salute to be unconstitutional, concluded that the “fixed star in our constitutional constellation” is that no government official “can prescribe what shall be orthodox” in politics or opinion.
By obscuring the definition of actionable abuse and using ominous tactics to enforce it, the state arbitrarily skews classroom conversations.
“The Florida Legislature is using its power to target ideas it does not like -- exactly what the Free Speech Clause was designed to prevent,” Corbin said. “School boards should make decisions about what is taught in schools based on pedagogy, not politics. That is clearly not what is happening in Florida.”
This added layer of scrutiny comes as school districts grapple with the effects of a nationwide teacher shortage, many citing the pandemic as the catalyst. COVID-19 protocols, low pay, increasing mass shootings and politicized classroom curriculums have left schools largely short staffed.
Last October, the Florida Education Association reported having over 5,000 vacancies for teaching positions, with an additional 4,000 available school staff positions. These numbers have exponentially increased, as Florida continues to trail behind the nation, ranking 49th for teacher pay.
By now inviting Big Brother into classrooms, critics worry this could exacerbate an already dire situation.
“The concern over impacts on talent-sourcing and retention is a real one,” Wolf said. “Adding unnecessary and burdensome roadblocks to creating inclusive classrooms and teaching a diverse array of students will do nothing to encourage more people to jump into the education field, nor will it attract new teachers into the Florida school system.”
This proposal must pass through several Florida committees before being introduced to the state’s House of Representatives. If it survives, school districts will be required to vote on it by Jan. 1, 2023.
By Haley Hartner