Campus-speech legislation could extend China’s policing of speech into American classrooms.
Florida Gov. Rob DeSantis earlier this year signed a controversial “viewpoint diversity
” bill, permitting students to make video or audio recordings of classroom lectures for educational purposes or for reporting violations of university policy.
The bill was supported by conservative groups, who said it would promote free expression by allowing students at Florida’s public colleges to document supposed political bias in the classroom. But it also could put students and faculty at risk of running afoul of Chinese national-security law, said Thomas A. Breslin, a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University.
China’s National People’s Congress last year passed a national-security law for Hong Kong that makes speech deemed critical of the Hong Kong or Chinese governments unlawful — regardless of the citizenship or location of the offender. Recordings made under the auspices of the Florida law could also serve as documentation of statements perceived to be anti-Chinese, Breslin told me:
“It allows China to potentially reach into Florida classrooms.”
Similar concerns about technology extending Chinese influence into American universities were raised when many students were taking classes online during the Covid-19 pandemic
, including some from China. The Association of Asian Studies warned
then that students and faculty could be in legal jeopardy and that academic freedom was at risk.
At that time, the real concern was for students studying remotely from home. But Chinese authorities have found a way to track students’ speech abroad. A student at the University of Minnesota was detained and served time in prison when he returned home to Wuhan for tweets
he posted critical of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Twitter, of course, is blocked by Chinese firewalls.
Some Chinese students at U.S. colleges are already wary of speaking up on controversial topics, worried that their fellow Chinese students could report their comments back home. Breslin fears the new law could further chill discussion about politically sensitive subjects.
Under the Florida measure, students would not have to get consent or inform their professors or classmates of their recording. Faculty groups have sued to block the law, which also requires annual campus free speech climate surveys. But right-wing student activist groups like Turning Point USA have backed campus speech legislation across the country.
“You don’t have to be paranoid to be concerned given China’s behavior,” Breslin, who studies Chinese foreign relations, said. “The Chinese government tries to control the narrative.”