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Serwer: Florida Silencing Academic Critics of Disenfranchisement Echoes End of Reconstruction

The state of Florida is silencing those opposing its efforts to disenfranchise its own citizens.

A lawsuit filed by a coalition of civil-rights groups contends that Florida’s Republican-controlled government has repeatedly attempted to restrict the franchise, including curtailing third-party registration campaigns, cutting early voting, and imposing an onerous poll tax on formerly incarcerated Floridians after the state voted overwhelmingly to restore their rights. The more recent restrictions involve a series of “measures that prohibit or restrict access to the ballot and voting mechanisms that Black and Latino voters used to great effect in the 2020 elections.” The GOP has chosen this path despite Republican gains among both groups in the last election.

As Florida prepares to defend these new voting restrictions in court, it has prohibited three University of Florida law professors from testifying about the restrictions’ impact. “University officials told the three that because the school was a state institution, participating in a lawsuit against the state ‘is adverse to U.F.’s interests’ and could not be permitted,” The New York Times reported. The university has reiterated its commitment to “free speech” and defended its actions by arguing that the professors were merely barred from undertaking “outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.” Under this definition of free speech, you may speak as long as you say nothing the state has forbidden you to say.

This decision is of a piece with the censorship campaign that has swept Republican-controlled states that have attempted to outlaw the teaching of the history of racial discrimination in America in public schools. At the core of this panic is a sentiment similar to the falsehood of “negro tyranny” used to justify the violent overthrow of the Reconstruction governments in the 1870s. As the Black vote was seen by reactionaries as oppression of whites then, an accurate accounting of America’s history of racial discrimination is seen by their ideological descendants as bigotry against white people today.

Florida’s move to censor academics employed by its state university makes clear that, for many, the arguments about free speech that have dominated the political conversation over the past few years have never truly been about the right to speak. They have, instead, been about providing a predicate for conservatives to use the power of the state to settle political arguments. The campaigns of censorship and disenfranchisement must thus be understood as two halves of the same whole. The former erases the historical memory of the effect such restrictions have had in the past, and the latter prevents the public from acting on the knowledge of the discriminatory past that GOP leadership is attempting to erase.

The triumphant Democrats who rewrote Florida’s constitution in 1885 knew enough not to leave a paper trail. At the constitutional convention, the historian Edward C. Williamson wrote, they rapidly squelched a suggestion to have the proceedings transcribed.

Their aims, however, were nonetheless clear: “the disenfranchisement of the Negro and the obliteration of the Republican Party of Florida.” In the aftermath of Reconstruction, through devices such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and the white primary, and extralegal methods including terrorism and intimidation, Black men in Florida were stripped of the franchise. As the historian Darryl Paulson has written, “between laws passed by the Legislature and the adoption of the 1885 Constitution, almost every black vote was eliminated.” When my mother was born in Tampa, this was the law of the land. My grandparents could not vote. Most of the country was fine with that.

Read entire article at The Atlantic