Ben Sasse Is About To Be Tested. Bigly.
Will he stand up to DeSantis? Or cave?
Another tumultuous news day.
In Arizona, Mark Kelly debated Blake Masters. “The Astronaut and the Alien.”
In Georgia, searching for a safe space, Herschel Walker sought out the moisty bosom of Hugh Hewitt’s hackery. It did not disappoint.
This, of course, has lead to a a lot of what coulda been post-mortems on Sasse’s senate career. Sasse was one of the brightest and most interesting members of the house formerly known as the world’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Early on, Sasse was a vocal critic of Donald Trump and all his works, and for while, it looked like the former college president with a keen sense of history and constitutional principles might emerge as the conscience of the senate GOP. He was a rising star who could have been a leader of post-Trumpian conservativism.
But he made his choices.
The author of The Vanishing American Adult… vanished, but not before he bent the knee to Trump. The man who was once the Great Never-Trump Hope, became just another apologist for Trumpism. (You can read my lament for his squandered potential here.)
The disappointment in Sasse was palpable, but it’s also worth remembering that (once safely re-elected) Sasse did find his voice again. He voted to convict Trump in the second impeachment trial, and he spoke out forcefully against the Big Lie.
This was the Old Sasse, in February 2021:
President Trump lied that he 'won the election by a landslide.' He lied about widespread voter fraud, spreading conspiracy theories despite losing 60 straight court challenges, many of his losses handed down by great judges he nominated. He tried to intimidate the Georgia secretary of state to 'find votes' and overturn that state’s election. He publicly and falsely declared that Vice President Pence could break his constitutional oath and simply declare a different outcome. The president repeated these lies when summoning his crowd — parts of which were widely known to be violent — to Capitol Hill to intimidate Vice President Pence and Congress into not fulfilling our constitutional duties. Those lies had consequences, endangering the life of the vice president and bringing us dangerously close to a bloody constitutional crisis. Each of these actions are violations of a president’s oath of office.
By now, Sasse’s search-for-his-conscience is an old story, frequently rehashed, and frankly, tedious in its retelling.
Far more interesting is what Sasse will do next.
The Nebraska senator is getting the hell out of the squalid GOP caucus (think Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and coming attractions like Herschel Walker and Dr. Oz) only to plunge into the snake pit of Florida’s MAGA-infested politics.
More to the point: he’s headed to the state’s flagship university, which is, at the moment, ground-zero for an epic and protracted fight over academic freedom.
So, Sasse faces an immediate test: Will he push back against Governor Ron DeSantis’ attempts to throttle speech on the campus, or will he roll over (again)?
Earlier this year the GOP-controlled legislature passed, and DeSantis signed legislation that would “alter the tenure system, remove Florida universities from commonly accepted accreditation practices, and mandate annual ‘viewpoint diversity surveys’ from students and faculty.”
He also signed the so-called “Stop WOKE Act” that restricts what schools, including universities, and private businesses can teach about race and gender.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression immediately sounded the alarm. “The enactment of HB 7 will lead to a chilling effect on faculty speech, with professors becoming more inclined to self-censor due to uncertainty about whether a discussion topic falls under the scope of the bill,” the free speech advocates warned. “The signing of this bill would not only interfere with faculty members’ academic freedom, but also with students’ right to receive information unfettered by a ‘pall of orthodoxy.’”
The Florida House of Representatives staff’s own analysis of HB 7 explains that it prohibits “instruction” or any “required activity that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” someone to “believe” prohibited concepts.
“That stretches far beyond a constitutional prohibition on compelled speech,” the group declared.
A federal judge agreed, issuing a scathing denunciation of Florida’s attack on free intellectual inquiry.
Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said in a 44-page ruling that the “Stop WOKE” act violates the First Amendment and is impermissibly vague. Walker also refused to issue a stay that would keep the law in effect during any appeal by the state.
"Florida's legislators may well find plaintiffs' speech repugnant. But under our constitutional scheme, the remedy for repugnant speech is more speech, not enforced silence," wrote Walker.
"If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case," the judge added. "But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents."
The judge reached for a popular culture reference to describe Florida’s “Upside down” approach to the First Amendment:
In the popular television series "Stranger Things," the "upside down" describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world... Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment "upside down." Normally, the First Amendment bars the state from burdening speech, while private actors may burden speech freely. But in Florida, the First Amendment apparently bars private actors from burdening speech, while the state may burden speech freely... Now, like the heroine in "Stranger Things," this court is once again asked to pull Florida back from the "upside down."
DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody are appealing the ruling to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In its court filing, Florida argues that professors at public universities have no right to freedom of speech when they teach. “Over the past few days, many academics have expressed outrage,” wrote the Chronicle of Higher Education, “describing Florida’s stance as a direct, troubling attack on academic freedom. Some have even called it fascist.”
Ben Sasse is now being launched directly into the center of the blaze.
Earlier this year, FIRE called on administrators at Florida’s public universities and colleges “to stand up for the First Amendment rights of their students and faculty.”
“Universities should not have to choose between respecting their faculty’s First Amendment rights and running afoul of government actors,” said Joe Cohn, FIRE’s legislative and policy director.
“Institutions will need to show courage to challenge this landmine of a bill that threatens to harm academic freedom.”
So the question now: Will Sasse — who has a mixed record in this sort of thing — show that courage?
Is the post-senate Ben Sasse going to be his own man? Or DeSantis’s?
Is he being chosen to be the president of the state’s flagship university because he will fight for free speech? Or because he’ll provide cover for the nation’s most egregious attack on academic freedom?
Was he picked to be Florida’s most prominent educational leader because he will speak truth to (Republican) power, or because… he won’t?
Exit take: This is not completely reassuring.
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The popularity of pot
Here’s the thing: Walker is Lying. the GOP and media hacks like Hugh Hewitt know he’s lying.
Walker knows they know he’s lying.
And everybody is cool with it.
On Thursday, after the Daily Beast reported that the woman who had the abortion is also the mother of one his children, his explanation changed from inconsistent to incoherent. In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Walker said the allegation was “untrue,” designed to “distract people,” and that “if I’ve been forgiven, why in the world would I not be forgiven of something like that?”
“If that had happened, I would have said, ‘There’s nothing to be ashamed of there,’” Walker told Hewitt, a strange thing to say for a candidate who supports a nationwide abortion ban with no exceptions.
I had some thoughts:
Is Ron DeSantis Trump’s Heir or Just a Wannabe?