High Stakes in Florida
The Biden administration comes after New College and its conservative reforms, alleging specious civil rights violations.
Last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into New College of Florida, where I serve as a trustee, regarding alleged “disability discrimination.”
The investigation was prompted by a complaint by ACLU attorney Jennifer Granick, alleging that the college’s trustees and administrators violated civil rights law by removing “gender neutral” signage from bathrooms, defunding the DEI and gender studies programs, and “misgendering” the former DEI director and a former student, who use “ze/zir” and “they/them” pseudo-pronouns, respectively. According to the complaint, these actions constitute discrimination “based on perceived disability and gender prejudice.”
As a tactical matter, the complaint is a clear attempt to disrupt the conservative reforms at New College, which represent a threat to the Left’s hegemony over higher education. Since January, when the new board of trustees was announced, New College has secured record funding from the state legislature, begun a campus-wide renovation, launched a new core curriculum, and recruited the largest incoming class in the college’s history. For left-wing activists, who had previously considered New College as an outpost for social-justice activism, this state of affairs—conservative leaders implementing conservative reforms—was intolerable. They might chant for “democracy” in theory, but, in practice, they are more than willing to use anti-democratic tools to restrict any democratic action that might undermine their cultural power.
As a strategic matter, a more dangerous element is in play: the manipulation of civil rights law. The Civil Rights Act, many have come to believe, was a noble response to Jim Crow segregation and other serious abuses that, over the years, has been distorted by left-wing activists, who have used it to force public and private institutions to conform to unrelated ideological demands. In the case of New College, the implication is clear: despite the fact that the trustees, state legislators, state education officials, and governor support the ongoing reforms, left-wing activists, in cooperation with the Biden administration, would use civil rights law to compel the college to surrender to left-wing “diversity and inclusion” orthodoxy and to mandate the use of falsified ideological terms, such as “ze/zir” and “they/them.” Dissenters, the activists hope, will be denounced, investigated, and punished by the full force of the federal government.
The stakes are immense. The complainants would like nothing more than to set the precedent that DEI bureaucracies, gender studies programs, and specified political speech are required by civil rights law. If they are able to make the link between “perceived disability and gender prejudice” and win such a judgement, it would be the ultimate vindication of Christopher Caldwell’s thesis that the Civil Rights Act, in its present configuration and usage, represents a mortal threat to the constitutional principles of free speech, democratic representation, and equal treatment under the law. If the Department of Education forces New College to reinstate terminated left-wing programs and requires trustees to address women as “ze/zir” and “they/them,” it would mean, in a real sense, the replacement of the system of self-governance with a system of ideological rule.
How will the investigation proceed? If evaluated on the merits, it would be dismissed immediately. But the Biden administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it is willing to misuse the federal justice system against its political opponents. The administration mobilized the FBI counterterrorism division against conservative school-board protestors and colluded with social-media companies to censor conservative opinion. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to believe that the administration sees the New College complaint as an opportunity to cut down a political foe.
For me, the Department of Education investigation is personal. I’m the person in question who supposedly “mocked and misgendered” the former employee and former student and whose reporting on radical gender theory has supposedly created a “hostile environment” on campus. But I will reaffirm my basic principles: I will not falsify reality. I will never address another human being as a “ze/zir” or a “they/them.” And, however the Department of Education rules, I will not back down from the mission of New College of Florida: reviving the classical liberal arts and restoring the true, the good, and the beautiful as the ultimate end of higher education.
The law, rightly interpreted, is on our side. The former employee and former student have a First Amendment right, of course, to call themselves “ze/zir,” “they/them,” or any other nonsense that they fancy. But I, too, have a First Amendment right to tell the truth: left-wing “neo-pronouns” are ideological constructions that deny human nature and are designed to manipulate otherwise well-meaning people into affirming a cult-like belief system. The New College administration has “brushed off“ the allegations and promised to defend itself.
This investigation is bigger than New College. If the state can force you to lie about basic reality—man and woman—then it can force you to lie about anything. If this effort succeeds, it will not only destroy the reforms at New College but will also effectively outlaw the core of conservatism, which as Russell Kirk explained long ago, is the “negation of ideology“ and the adherence to unchanging norms.
We can’t let that happen.
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This article was originally published in City Journal.