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Does Florida Bill HB 999 Ban Black Greek Life, Courses, Programs from State Universities?

The controversial bill gives power to the educational board of governors to ban funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

Published March 15, 2023

 (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Image Via Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images

bill proposed by Florida state Rep. Alex Andrade that "prohibits a state college, state university, or one of their direct-support organizations, from expending state or federal funds on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs or activities" has generated significant controversy in the U.S. 

Broadly speaking, the bill increases the authority of the Florida Board of Governors (the governing body of Florida's state university system) to regulate state-funded higher education by terminating the tenure of professors and imposing limits on programs related to "Critical Race Theory" and DEI programs. The Florida state House passed the bill. As of this writing, it was awaiting action in the Senate.

The vague language combined with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' prior actions in the Florida education sector have led many to raise concerns about the law's effect on classes or organizations discussing or founded around subjects like race. One viral post by comedian D.L. Hughley summarized this interpretation of the bill:

Here, Snopes explores each of the claims made of House Bill (HB) 999 in this viral post. While the bill does not explicitly ban Black and minority fraternities and sororities and other programs, the bill's vague language makes its downstream effects up to interpretation and hard to determine. 

Black and Minority Fraternities and Sororities 

The viral post states that HB 999 would ban "NPHC organizations" and "NMGC & Latinx organizations." The former — the National Pan-Hellenic Council — is the umbrella organization behind historically Black fraternities and sororities. The latter — the National Multicultural Greek Council — "is an umbrella council for a coalition of Multicultural Greek-letter organizations." 

HB 999 does not explicitly ban such institutions, but some observers fear the language of the law could be used to that end. For example, the law bans state "expenditure for membership in, or the purchase of goods or services from, any organization that discriminates on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion."

During debate before the committee behind HB 999, state Rep. Yvonne Hinson raised concerns with the bill's primary sponsor, Andrade, saying that, as written, it would affect Black Greek life, as reported by local TV news station WPTV:

A member of a sorority herself, Hinson said her interpretation of the bill is that it could also impact the way Black sororities or fraternities operate on campus. [...] Hinson said the bill's language may have a larger impact on advisers of any student-led groups or activities tied to diversity, equity and inclusion.

"Frankly, faculty that is paid by the university may not be able to be faculty advisers to these groups. They won't be," Hinson said. "Even if they will, this is going to intimidate them and create a chilling effect."

Andrade, in response, disputed that interpretation, saying the bill only affects faculty and administrator-run programs: 

On the committee floor, Andrade assured Hinson that the bill does not impact Black sororities and fraternities or their abilities to hold social justice events among other activities. Andrade went on to say that other groups could be impacted.

During a Facebook Live event, another state senator, Shervin Jones, argued that the bill is "so vague that HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] or other institutions …. who have Black fraternities and sororities on their campuses can practically say we will no longer be supporting you on our campuses based off of this law."

Another state representative, Angie Nixon, proposed an amendment to the bill that would protect these fraternities and sororities, but it was not adopted. While the bill is not explicitly banning minority-focused Greek life, it remains to be seen what the final version of the measure would look like following passage in the Senate and approval by DeSantis, just as it remains to be seen what effects the law may have on these organizations. 

Courses on Jewish Studies, Gender Studies, or Feminist Theory

The viral post asserts that HB 999 would remove courses, majors, and minors related to Jewish studies, feminist theory, and gender studies. Explicit support can be found in the text of the bill itself for much of this, as well as the staff analysis of the bill (it's unclear if the bill would apply to Jewish studies). As described in the bill itself, HB 999 empowers the Florida Board of Governors to remove majors and minors linked to Critical Theory and related topics:

The board shall … provide direction to each constituent university to remove from its programs any major or minor that is based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality … 

Courses that would include these topics are broadly defined, evidently. The bill's accompanying analysis provides four examples of classes offered by a Florida higher education institution that are "embed[ded]" with "DEI and CRT" and that would therefore be banned under the law:

One course … is described as "exploring the structures and institutions of social inequality along the intersectional axes of class, race, and gender/sexuality by focusing on how these categories are socially constructed, maintained, and experienced."

A course titled Philosophy of Race, Class, and Gender is described as "a study of selected contemporary philosophical, literary, and journalistic discussions of questions regarding race, class, and gender with a particular emphasis of these discussions in the United States." 

… A course titled Racism and Anti-Racism is described as "exploring the concepts of race, racism, and anti-racism from a variety of disciplines and perspectives."

Another course, titled Gender and Climate Change, is described as "exploring how gender inequality across the globe is related to environmental damage and climate change and examines feminist, indigenous, and LGBTQ climate justice movements alongside the gendered implications of global policy and practices related to the environment."

While the final bill has not reached DeSantis' desk and the present language leaves some room for interpretation, the examples provided in the bill's analysis suggest that courses on Jewish studies, gender studies, or feminist theory could indeed be banned under the law. 

Centers and Programs for Minority and LGBTQ+ Students

The viral post asserts that "centers and programs" for Black, Latinx, Asian and AAPI, and LGBTQ+ students would be removed from state higher education campuses. This comes from a potential prohibition on state or federal spending on DEI initiatives and a ban on "special benefits to individuals on the basis of race," as described in the bill's analysis:

The bill prohibits the expenditure of state and federal funds by any [State-funded Florida University] to promote, support or maintain any programs or campus activities that violate the [Florida Educational Equity Act], advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion; promote or engage in political or social activism; or include or espouse … any preferential treatment or special benefits to individuals on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion. 

During debate about the bill on March 14, 2023, Hinson asked Andrade "what campus activities" he was "attempting to regulate?" In response, Andrade said that purely student activities were not affected by the bill. The distinction, according to Andrade, relates to the presence of state funding or use of faculty or administrators, as reported by Florida Politics:

Andrade said if there are faculty advisory boards overseeing any such groups, those will be impacted by the bill. But he said individual faculty advisors will not be impacted. "Those student groups can continue to operate how they see fit currently, subject only to the policies and procedures that are content neutral that apply to all organizations, student organizations on campus," he said.

The bill states that, "Student fees to support student-led organizations are permitted notwithstanding any speech or expressive activity by such organizations that would otherwise violate [HB 999]." Andrade also made this point, saying that "the campus activities that would be at all discussed or considered by this bill are campus activities conducted by administration and professors in their position of roles of power over students on that campus — student activities not included." 

Hinson expressed skepticism regarding this claim to local media outlet WPTV. "Of course he answered that it would be zero effect on operations of student activities, student programs, multicultural centers, Black student centers, Latino student centers or any activities related to students," she said. "Although the bill itself seems to impact all of these different activities."

Faculty Tenure Review

The viral post stated that, under HB 999, "Tenured faculty will be eligible for review" and that "their tenure will be reconsidered by the board of trustees—who will be chosen and appointed by the governor." This is undeniably true based on the text of the bill, which added language allowing for faculty to be subjected to "a post-tenure review at any time for cause" if the Board of Governors requests it. "Cause" could potentially include violations of HB 999:

[P]oor performance, negligence, inefficiency or inability to perform assigned duties, insubordination, violation of any applicable law or rule, conduct unbecoming a public employee, misconduct, drug abuse, or conviction of any crime.

The Board of Governors is appointed and has, in recent years, been filled with DeSantis' allies hostile to subjects like DEI and CRT.

The Bottom Line

HB 999 bans state higher education institutions from funding DEI programs, bans funding for federal- or state-funded organizations that focus on specific racial minorities or sexual orientations, and bans majors, minors and courses that use "critical theory" of some kind. 

The specific implications of the bill with respect to Greek life and student-run organizations remain to be seen, and the Florida Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans, must pass its version of the bill next before it reaches DeSantis' desk.

Sources

An Act Relating to Postsecondary Educational 3 Institutions... Florida Senate, https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2023/999/BillText/c1/PDF.

Atterbury, Andrew. "How DeSantis and Florida Republicans Are Reshaping Higher Education." POLITICO, 16 Oct. 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/10/16/how-desantis-and-florida-republicans-are-reshaping-higher-education-00061980.

Daniels, Cheyanne M. "New Florida Bill Would Ban Diversity, Inclusion Programs on University Campuses." The Hill, 14 Mar. 2023, https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/3900186-new-florida-bill-would-ban-diversity-inclusion-programs-on-university-campuses/.

"HB 999 Opponents Fear Bill Would Regulate Student Campus Activities at Florida Colleges." WPTV News Channel 5 West Palm, 14 Mar. 2023, https://www.wptv.com/news/education/hb-999-opponents-fear-bill-would-regulate-student-campus-activities-at-florida-colleges.

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES STAFF ANALYSIS - HB 999. Florida Senate, 15 Mar. 2023, https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2023/999/Analyses/h0999.PEW.PDF.

Ogles, Jacob. "Bill Restructuring Higher Ed, Eliminating DEI Programs, Advances in House." Florida Politics - Campaigns & Elections. Lobbying & Government., 13 Mar. 2023, https://floridapolitics.com/archives/594968-bill-restructuring-higher-ed-eliminating-dei-programs-advances-in-house/.

Rohrer, Gray. "Gov. DeSantis Slams DEI Efforts in Universities Ahead of Debate to Rework System." Florida Politics - Campaigns & Elections. Lobbying & Government., 13 Mar. 2023, https://floridapolitics.com/archives/594901-gov-desantis-slams-dei-efforts-in-universities-ahead-of-debate-to-rework-system/.

Senate Bill 266 (2023) - The Florida Senate. https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2023/266. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Spivey, William. "Is Ron DeSantis Trying To Cancel Black Fraternities And Sororities?" The HBCU Chronicles, 15 Mar. 2023, https://medium.com/the-hbcu-chronicles/is-ron-desantis-trying-to-cancel-black-fraternities-and-sororities-5117b7dc46c3.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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