By Paul Blythe
Whether you liken it to fascism or McCarthyism or something in-between, the pernicious use of governmental power to repress and persecute political opponents for exercising their right to freedom of speech is a real and continuing thing in Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis.
We have seen it in his ongoing political and legal battle with the Walt Disney Company, which began when DeSantis and his lockstep party retaliated against Disney for speaking out against the Republican-controlled Legislature’s Parental Rights in Education Act (HB 1557), a law opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
We saw it in the 6-4 vote Wednesday (April 26) by New College’s Board of Trustees to deny five professors tenure even though, or more likely because, the five had been approved by New College’s previous president. The six who voted to deny tenure were led by trustees appointed by DeSantis this year for the express purpose of converting Florida’s progressive honors college to a public-school doppelganger of Hillsdale College, a private conservative Christian College in Michigan.
And we are seeing it now in the DeSantis administration’s targeting of Leon County Superintendent of Schools Rocky Hanna for his public criticism of various policies of DeSantis, including the Don’t Say Gay law, the expansion of vouchers and the governor’s ban of mask mandates during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Tallahassee Democrat broke the news Thursday, April 27, that Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. notified Hanna in early April that the state Department of Education decided it has probable cause for sanctions against Hanna’s Florida educator certificate. The DOE’s complaint lists five alleged violations, including that he failed in his role as superintendent to take “reasonable precautions” to distinguish his personal views from those of his school district, the Tallahassee Democrat story said.
Moms for Liberty the catalyst?
Hanna told the newspaper he first learned his “personal views” were under investigation when he received a letter from DOE on Christmas Eve. He said he believes the catalyst for the investigation was a letter from a parent to DeSantis asking the governor to remove Hanna from office. The parent, Brandi Andrews, who says in the letter she serves on the executive board of the Leon County chapter of Moms for Liberty, included with the letter three items written by Hanna in August 2022 – an excerpt from an email, a Facebook post and an op-ed in the Democrat – as examples of “issues we have with our local school board right here in Leon County.”
The email, written by Hanna to his district faculty and staff at the start of this school year and in response to the Don’t Say Gay law, says in part, “‘You do you’! Continue to teach the standards just as you have always done and do not worry for one minute about naysayers politics and others who are trying to mislead people and control what you can and cannot say in your classroom.”
In the DOE complaint, Diaz, the education commissioner, declared that Hanna’s “‘You do you’ opens the door to teachers imposing their own individual political and religious views on students and teachers failing to teach with fidelity to the Florida standards.”
The Facebook post criticizes DeSantis for blaming the state’s teacher shortage on unions, saying, “This video is just another example of the governor and his propaganda machine disseminating misinformation and lies in order to create a false narrative of what is actually happening in our schools.”
The op-ed piece also criticizes what Hanna calls the governor’s “negative propaganda war against our public-school system” while the governor and Republican lawmakers are at the same time expanding private school vouchers, which Hanna says are syphoning away public school dollars “to expand wealth and power for select individuals and private interests.”
“Make no mistake about it, the aspersions directed at public schools is accelerating the rated by which the state education system becomes completely privatized,” says the opinion piece, which Hanna ends by urging readers to let their representatives know they also “stand for the sanctity of our public-school system.”
Prosecutors also targeted
If Hanna’s educator certificate is revoked, it likely will give DeSantis all he needs to remove Hanna from his elected office, not unlike what DeSantis did to Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, a twice-elected Democrat who also publicly differed with DeSantis’ policies.
Florida’s Constitution allows governors to suspend local elected officials for various reasons, including “malfeasance” or “neglect of duty,” that are more substantial than publicly criticizing the governor’s policies.
DeSantis removed Warren from office after Warren signed a pledge along with 91 other prosecutors around the nation vowing to “exercise our well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide or support abortions,” even though DeSantis’ office found no evidence that Warren’s office failed to make such a prosecution or had committed any malfeasance or neglect, according to a New York Times report. The pledge came shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal right to an abortion, and Warren told a reporter in a televised report that the pledge should not be read as a blanket statement, as he would individually evaluate any cases that surfaced.
Now, another Democratic state attorney is claiming that DeSantis’ administration also is targeting her simply because he disagrees with her.
According to a Politico report, the governor’s general counsel, which also prepared the case to dismiss Warren, demanded Feb. 28 that Monique Worrell, the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, turn over emails, reports and documents related to Keith Moses, a 19-year-old charged with the murder of three people, including a television reporter, in Orlando. DeSantis had already criticized Worrell’s handling of previous juvenile arrests of Moses, who was on probation at the time of the Orlando killings.
Worrell said in March she had complied with most of the request, but on Friday (April 28), Worrell issued a news release saying, “It’s appalling to think that while Ft. Lauderdale was under water, the Governor had people fishing around Orange and Osceola Counties to see which cases he can single out from over 100,000 cases our office has processed since I have taken office, while he prances around Southeast Asia on his dilapidated presidential campaign tour. He seeks to exploit his political agenda against me, while seeking to use current and former employees of the State Attorney’s Office, as well as individuals like (Republican State Committeewoman) Debbie Galvin, as investigators seeking to gather evidence to build and justify a baseless case against a prosecutor he simply disagrees with politically,” according to the Orlando Weekly.
Supporters of Hanna are speaking out against DeSantis' “retaliatory bullying” of Hanna and the others who have had the strength of their convictions to publicly disagree with the governor, and they are noting the similarities to the fear-baiting and political purges of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
“We can’t duck and cover when someone faces an ideologically-motivated attack,” Leon County commissioner Rick Minor tweeted. “Based on my reading of the situation, @LeonSchools Superintendent Rocky Hanna acted with integrity and in accordance with the values of the majority of Leon County’s voters. These types of ‘investigations’ evoke the worst excesses of 1950s McCarthyism. We can disagree about policy, but none of us should accept this type of retaliatory bullying from our state government.”
Rick Minor is right. We can’t duck and cover any more. Let Gov. Ron DeSantis know you’re opposed to this 21st century McCarthyism by emailing him at GovernorRon.DeSantis@EOG.MyFlorida.com or calling him at 850-717-9337 or calling his chief of staff, James Uthmeier, at 850-717-9310.