Workers and political activists beware: What is happening in Florida threatens all political campaigns we are involved in.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis is moving to be the US’s Viktor Orbán. Orbán, president of Hungary, has basically eliminated democratic rights in that country. He did it not by throwing tens of thousands in prison, not by declaring martial law, but bit-by-bit, clamping down on free speech through gradually tightening the noose, both through legislation and control over different government bodies. This is DeSantis’s strategy. He is starting in Florida. He will use that base to run for U.S. president, and if he gains the presidency, all bets are off.
DeSantis also bases himself on bigoted politics similar to Orbán, as we see from the laws he has pushed through in Florida:
Legislation: “Don’t say gay”
DeSantis started with his “don’t say gay” law. Under that law, reference to
sexual orientation in school grades up to and including third grade is prohibited. Beyond third grade it is permitted to the extent that it is “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” This is so vague that it leaves teachers and others completely subject to the whim of DeSantis and his appointees. As the National Education Association asked “Does it mean, for example, that an educator can use books with LGBTQ+ characters so long as the discussion of those books does not focus on their sexual orientation or gender identity?” What, after all, are “state standards”?
“STOP WOKE Act”
DeSantis followed with the “Stop WOKE Act”. NBC News summarized that act as follows: “The law prohibits teaching or business practices that contend members of one ethnic group are inherently racist and should feel guilt for past actions committed by others. It also bars the notion that a person’s status as privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by their race or gender, or that discrimination is acceptable to achieve diversity.”
On the surface, this may sound reasonable to some, but it’s all in the interpretation. For example, if a teacher teaches about the lynchings of black people in the South, or the effect of Jim Crow laws, will this make some white children “feel guilty”. Again, that decision is up to DeSantis and his appointees.
First Amendment Attack
Now, in his most serious attack of all, a bill has been introduced in Florida’s House and Senate that opens up the media, bloggers, and anybody else who practices free speech, to costly libel suits. It’s necessary to go back a bit in time to understand this:
In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court granted free speech protection to the media in the case of N.Y. Times v. Sullivan. In that case, the NY Times had published a fund-raising advertisement for the Civil Rights movement. An Alabama politician, L.B. Sullivan, claimed the ad had misleading statements about him. He sued and won. The suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. The court ruled that something must be either “malicious” or in “reckless disregard to the truth” to be libelous. Even that standard has been criticized as being too loose since a major concern is not only losing a libel case, but the costs involved in defending such a case.
Now, DeSantis is trying to overturn the Sullivan standard. His mouthpieces in the state senate and house have indtroduced bills that would accomplish that. The New Yorker summarizes these bills: The Florida House version of the bill would require a reporter to thoroughly “verify” any statement. This is a process that can take months or even years.
Both the House and the Senate versions would eliminate SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) protections. SLAPP protection takes into account the fact that just defending oneself against a libel suit is time consuming and expensive, even if the suit is frivolous. In such frivolous suits, the defendant can recover their legal fees under SLAPP protections. The senate version nullifies this while the House version reverses it altogether, allowing the plaintiff to recover their fees.
The House version has an even more pernicious clause. The New Yorker explains: “The bill would make it defamatory to claim that someone is racist, sexist, or homophobic based on that person’s religious beliefs. This is, in some ways, the bill’s most reactionary provision, because it recasts what courts ordinarily consider an opinion as a defamatory fact. Most people would agree that a statement that someone or something is racist or sexist is, in many cases, open to debate—there is no litmus test for discrimination. Opinions are classically protected speech, since they are incapable of being conclusively proven true or false. Even more radically, the bill, if it becomes law, would disallow evidence of bias that relies on a person’s religious or “scientific” beliefs. So, for example, it would make it defamatory to accuse a prominent Catholic of sexism, and then prohibit a libel defendant from citing that person’s support for the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women priests as evidence.” Or think about how this would affect criticism of (racist) Christian nationalists, or of Christian fundamentalists who oppose a woman’s right to abortion. In fact, almost anybody could hide behind religious beliefs, including employers who oppose workers rights.
These bills – which are almost certain to become Florida law – flagrantly violates the Sullivan rule. In fact, just as was done with different state laws violating Roe v Wade, the intent is clearly for it to be taken up to the Supreme Court. What would happen there? According to the N.Y. Times both Gorsuch and Thomas want to roll back the Sullivan protection. Whether they succeed or not this time, as in the state laws violating Roe v Wade, bit by bit it would be chipped away.
Even if the Supreme Court throws it out altogether, this would take years, and DeSantis has an immediate goal in mind: Running for president. He wants to make Florida his safe bastion, and this law would be an important step in that direction, whether it is thrown out or not. And if he wins the Republican nomination and then the presidency, all bets are off.
The Union Leadership
The national education unions – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – have been critical of DeSantis’s repressive actions. But they haven’t done anything. The Florida AFL-CIO urged people to make three phone calls and seven emails to DeSantis and similar figures. They are calling this “The 3-7 challenge”. They write: “Our goal is to drive more than 10,000 points of contact to Florida’s elected leaders, demanding that they protect the public good by protecting public education!” This it will be as effective as trying to talk Putin into withdrawing his troops from Ukraine or trying to convince Netanyahu to stop attacking Palestinians. When the “don’t say gay” bill was first introduced, the two education unions,
together with the AFL-CIO, should have called a nation-wide one day school strike, to be followed up by further action. This is the general approach of the labor leadership – complain and criticize, raise funds for some Democrat, and stay out of the streets. This strategy of the union leadership coincides with the “team concept” – the view that the unions are on the same “team” as the employers and they must help the employers make profits. That means holding down the wages and keeping the members passive. On all counts, this strategy has been a catastrophic failure. Among other results, it has thoroughly alienated the great majority of the members from their own unions.
In the past, anybody who took this sort of thing seriously would have been called “hysterical”, and with some good reason. Now, anybody who dismisses it as too extreme to come about is living in a past era.
Where can we go from here?
The socialist forces that retain a grip on reality are so small as to be nearly powerless. But no matter what our present focus, we must be aware of this immense danger. The United States is full of explosive potential. The Norfolk Southern train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, is one example. Unfortunately, a large portion of that population seems so full of MAGA confusion that it renders them powerless to really organize. Another potential disaster may be different. Meanwhile, we should be paying attention to and be agitating around this enormous danger that DeSantis poses. Union members can raise this threat in their unions and demand the unions call a one day protest during normal work hours. In addition, the unions and all activist groups should be trying to organize community, school and work meetings to discuss how to throw back this threat.We should also be considering the fact that relying on the Democrats to stop DeSantis and what he represents has failed. A movement in the streets and in the work places and schools can be the basis for creating a new, working class party.