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Florida bills target gender-affirming healthcare, university diversity courses

By Nicole Markus, Medill News Service
Olivia Solomon (with bullhorn), the sister of 12-year-old Cooper, speaks during a protest over the removal of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Photo courtesy of Olivia Solomon
1 of 2 | Olivia Solomon (with bullhorn), the sister of 12-year-old Cooper, speaks during a protest over the removal of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Photo courtesy of Olivia Solomon

March 14 (UPI) -- A Florida Senate bill discussed in committee this week would allow state courts to revoke custody from parents "to protect" children who may be receiving or have received gender affirming healthcare, disallowing prescriptions or procedures before age 18.

That deeply concerns the mother of Cooper Solomon, a happy 12-year-old who lives in South Florida with his family and his dogs. He's a middle school student with caring friends. He loves wearing dresses, makeup and fun hairstyles.

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And, according to his mother, Jennifer, he could be taken into custody by the state of Florida if Senate Bill 254 passes.

But SB 254 is only one of several bills introduced in the Florida Legislature that target public educational institutions, as well as professors, that teach courses related to diversity, equity and inclusion, many inspired by Gov. Ron DeSantis' beliefs.

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Though Jennifer Solomon plans to fight SB 254, legal recourse could be difficult to come by without demonstrating harm. But she said she can't, and won't, wait that long.

"I'm certainly not going to wait until they take Cooper to then file a lawsuit to try to get custody back," she said. "At this point, I have to decide, even though I love this state, and I'm not one who runs from it, is it time to leave?"

Critics of the bill have likened it to legal kidnapping. The original language granted courts emergency temporary jurisdiction over a child who may be "at risk" of receiving gender-affirming care, but also included a provision that would make a parent or older sibling who is transitioning a risk factor.

Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, who introduced the bill, said in an email Friday that he has "listened to feedback" from those who oppose the bill and modified the language. The new amendment removed the clause that includes parents and older siblings who may be transitioning.

"Parents have the right and a responsibility to raise their children as they see fit, and government intervention should be a last resort," Yarborough said in the email. "I filed this legislation because I believe, as lawmakers, we have to draw the line when drastic, life-altering gender dysphoria therapies and surgeries are mutilating young children."

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On Monday, the Senate Committee on Health Policy voted to advance the bill, which codifies provisions from the State's Board of Medicine and Board of Osteopathic Medicine that ban surgeries, hormone therapies and puberty blockers for children under 18.

Olivia Solomon, Cooper's older sister, said the Solomons want to try to let Cooper finish middle school with his friends. But it might not be possible.

"I'm hoping I have a couple years before I have to make that decision, but it might be a couple months or a couple weeks," Jennifer Solomon said. "We are fighting back, because no one should have to be a political refugee."

SB 254 is just one of dozens of bills that members of the Florida Legislature have introduced that target what DeSantis describes as "woke" ideology.

Others bar educational institutions from teaching anything that could cause "guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress" because of their race or sexual orientation, among other things.

"We must ensure school systems are responsive to parents and to students, not partisan interest groups, and we must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology," DeSantis said during his second inaugural address.

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And though Jennifer Solomon said Cooper's school has decided to stand by LGBTQ+ students and protect them, youngsters like Cooper already are seeing the effects of these laws in other public schools.

"It's fascism," Jennifer Solomon said. "I mean, we have schools here that have empty shelves, because teachers are scared to have books on their bookshelves. We are absolutely stifling free speech. That is what is happening in Florida."

Olivia Solomon said this is happening in more than just elementary, middle and high schools. A senior at University of Central Florida, she said many of her professors are choosing not to speak out against laws with which they disagree for fear of retribution.

Another House bill, HB 999, targets women, gender and sexuality students and race studies in the state universities. And the governor would have the authority to fire professors, threatening the tenure system.

Some of Olivia Solomon's professors who have taught or are teaching subjects that involve diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are being included on a list sent to DeSantis' office, according to her.

She said nobody is sure what the lists are being used for, and professors who have been put on the lists are considering moving away to protect their livelihood and families.

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"In terms of professors and educators, they're just afraid," Olivia Solomon said. "A lot of them can't speak out for fear of losing their jobs."

Pritzker School of Law Professor Heidi Kitrosser, who specializes in free speech law at Northwestern University, said issues like this are part of the "chilling effect."

According to Kitrosser, when a statute paints a "broad brush" of what cannot be said in a classroom, teachers and professors may not know what's allowed, leading them to choose to say nothing rather than get in trouble.

"Professors start censoring themselves, or universities start censoring their professors, because they don't want to run afoul of the law," she said.

At Florida International University's College of Law -- the only public law school in South Florida -- diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have all but been eradicated. A new law would prohibit any public funds from being used for these initiatives.

FIU Law Dean of Students Angelique Ortega said the school also is barred from raising private funds for the training.

Ortega said that these laws are "performative," meant to make a point. She said she doesn't believe the laws will hold up once they go to courts.

"They are passing seemingly unconstitutional laws, knowing that they are likely going to be overturned and knowing that they're going to spend millions of dollars, of taxpayer dollars, defending these lawsuits," Ortega said. "But it doesn't matter, because that's not the point."

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According to Kitrosser, a common talking point with DeSantis and supporters is the fact that these are public schools using taxpayer money. However, the First Amendment still comes into play, she said.

Kitrosser said that this is one thing the courts will have to reckon with when hearing lawsuits -- there is precedent that prevents the government from restricting educational institutions.

"The Legislature could choose not to have created an educational institution in the first place, but once a college or university is in place, there are certain restrictions that the government cannot impose on what can and cannot be said in the classroom," Kitrosser said.

Though outlooks like this are optimistic, Olivia Solomon said the problem is that litigation like this can take a long time. In the meantime, people like her brother and her professors are at risk.

"During that time it takes for them to get a lawsuit, to get them back, to try different things, it's a matter of years," Olivia Solomon said. "It's kids' lives and everyone's lives on the line."

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