On March 3, thousands of students across the state of Florida walked out of their classrooms in protest of Florida House Bill 1557, dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill by its opponents. As written, the bill supposedly bans any school district in the state from teaching students in grades K through 3 about sexual orientation or gender identity, though there is some dispute over the exact nature of what is and is not allowed at any grade level. In Leon County, students even showed up at the Capitol building to make their voices heard.
Not too long before those protests, on Feb. 24, Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. In what is likely the opening speech of his 2024 campaign for the White House, DeSantis threw plenty of red meat to the crowd, declaring war on “woke-ism” (whatever that is). He also boasted about his “anti-masking” policies, calling Florida a “bastion of freedom,” unlike the nightmare authoritarian state of … Australia.
This is something that DeSantis in particular and Republicans in general tout regularly: freedom. They say they’re all for “freedom.” But what does “freedom” mean to DeSantis? It certainly doesn’t mean that people have a right to decide for themselves what they want to teach in their local school districts.
He and the Republicans running the state Legislature believe so strongly in “freedom” that they have taken it upon themselves to tell local school districts how to run their own affairs. What the people of that district might want is irrelevant: Tallahassee knows better.
Let’s look at other examples of how DeSantis and the Florida Republicans protect “freedom”:
• The city of Key West has been banned from deciding how many cruise ships can dock in its own ports.
• Citizens across the state have been banned from deciding how to best protect their children from COVID.
• Local governments are banned from enforcing mask requirements for municipal employees.
• Finally, and most frighteningly, the Republican Party is working diligently to restrict the freedom of women to make decisions about their own bodies.
So much “freedom!” Of course, some are completely free: People who don’t want to wear masks are free to infect others. Parents who want to shut down a school district’s entire curriculum are empowered to sue. People who want to carry guns are free to endanger everyone around them with weapons that might be dropped or used recklessly.
Why is he doing this? Because he doesn’t actually believe in freedom. Or, rather, he believes in freedom for some over freedom for others
Freedom, to DeSantis, means that people with whom he agrees get to do what they want, regardless of the consequences to others. Giving some people the “freedom” to walk around unmasked means restricting the freedom of others to go about their business without getting infected. Giving some the “freedom” to carry guns in public denies the rest of us the freedom to walk the streets without worrying about getting shot.
Because, in the end, it all comes down to who you are: If you are a member of a group in society that Republicans like, DeSantis and the Florida GOP will fight for your “freedom” until their last breath. No quarter will be given in protecting your “rights,” which are whatever you want them to be.
But if you are gay, or trans, or a member of a minority of any sort, or, really, if you are a part of any group Republicans don’t like, you have no freedoms. You can be trod on, spat on, beaten and even murdered, and it’s just too bad. You. Don’t. Count. Your vote doesn’t count and your life doesn’t matter. You only have the freedom to do what you’re told.
DeSantis himself showed what it’s all about the day before the student protests, in fact, on March 2, when he was announcing a cybersecurity initiative at the University of South Florida in Tampa. At the event, supposedly to stand with him in support of his initiative, were some students who were wearing masks to protect themselves from COVID.
Rather than give them the “freedom” to decide for themselves whether to wear masks or not, DeSantis berated them, telling them that wearing masks was “ridiculous.” What about their freedom?
It’s a perfect encapsulation of DeSantis’ idea of “freedom.” You’re not free to make your own choices, if those choices bother him. You’re free to do what you’re told.
This article first appeared in The Gainesville Sun. It appears here with minor edits.
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