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Fact check: Liberal website changes headline that falsely said DeSantis signed a bill that forces students to register their political views

By Daniel Dale, CNN

The liberal website Salon has changed a headline that had falsely said a bill signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis forces Florida’s students and professors to register their political views with the state.

The 2021 law does require public colleges and universities in Florida to administer annual surveys on the subject of “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.” But contrary to the inaccurate initial Salon headline, the law does not require anybody to register their political views. Students and faculty members can decide whether to participate in the surveys, which are anonymous.

Salon published the headline in June 2021. Its revision on Wednesday, more than a year later, came after the article went viral among some Democrats on Twitter amid talk of a possible DeSantis run for president.

Before Salon’s revision, its false claim was promoted this week by various Democratic commentators, by Florida agriculture commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried (who subsequently deleted the tweet that linked to the Salon article), and even by renowned novelist Stephen King, who has more than 6.7 million Twitter followers and has been a harsh critic of DeSantis.

Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir said in a Thursday email that while another Salon editor had defended the initial headline back in 2021, the publication recently took another look and concluded that the headline “conveyed a misleading impression of what the Florida law actually said, and did not live up to our editorial standards.” Salon changed the headline from “DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state” to “DeSantis signs bill requiring survey of Florida students, professors on their political views.”

DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in a Thursday email that her colleagues had unsuccessfully tried to get Salon to change the headline in 2021. She said: “It’s good to see that Salon finally changed its false headline after the pushback they received yesterday. It should have happened much sooner. Better yet, the Salon reporter and editors should have read the legislation before writing an article about it (a good practice for journalism, in general!).”

King said in a comment sent by a representative on Friday: “I regret having posted the headline without being more confident the story was correct. Salon is usually more reliable. Twitter is a constant learning experience, and I will try to do better.”

What the law says and what its critics say

DeSantis signed the law, known as HB 233, in June 2021. He claimed at the time that universities were promoting certain “orthodoxies” while shunning or suppressing other viewpoints.

The law mandates that Florida’s public colleges and universities annually conduct “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid” surveys created or chosen by the state education board. Those surveys are required to assess “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” at these institutions and the extent to which “members of the college community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.” The state education board is required to publish the survey results every year.

The law has been controversial from the start. Opponents have described the surveys as an infringement on academic freedom and freedom of speech and association, argued that the surveys are meant to suppress political views with which Florida Republicans disagree, and expressed concerns that the results could be used by those Republicans to target institutions or professors for funding cuts or other punishment. Opponents have also argued that the inaugural 2022 surveys include inappropriately “leading” questions.

A lawsuit challenging the law is headed for trial. And the United Faculty of Florida union has urged “all higher education faculty, staff, and students” not to fill out the surveys.

People are entitled to their subjective positions on the issue. But the viral tweets this week made an assertion of fact: that DeSantis had signed a bill requiring students and professor to register their political views with the state. And that is just incorrect.

Nothing in the law says that anybody is required to fill out the surveys. The law likewise doesn’t specify that filling out the surveys must be optional — but it has indeed been optional to date. The introduction to the 2022 surveys, which were sent out in April, made clear that participation “is completely voluntary” and that respondents “are free to not answer any question or withdraw from the survey at any time,” as the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper reported in April.

Second, while the law doesn’t specify that the surveys must be anonymous, anonymity has also been the state’s policy. The introduction to the 2022 surveys said: “No personally identifiable information will be associated with your responses. This survey is anonymous, and responses will only be reported at the group level, not at the individual level.” (Opponents have argued that faculty members, particularly members of minority demographic groups, could still be identified through their responses to survey questions.)

This article has been updated to add a comment from author Stephen King.

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