Ron DeSantis’s “Freedom” Branding Is a Laughable Sham

Ron DeSantis, the right-wing Florida governor and potential presidential hopeful, has taken to branding himself as the leading defender of precious American freedoms. But throughout his administration, he’s been at war with the First Amendment.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Don Soffer Clinical Research Center in Miami, May 17, 2022. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has a story to tell: while precious liberties were smothered across the country these past few years, he alone stood up for freedom.

Having made imitating Trump into an entire political career, DeSantis has, fittingly, taken to emblazoning a single word on anything he touches. He really, really wants you to know he loves “freedom”: his budget this year is the “Freedom First Budget”; he urged Americans to “go Mach 10 for FREEDOM” as he hawked his Top Gun-tie-in merch; and he proclaimed this year that he’d made “Florida the freest state in these United States,” standing “as freedom’s vanguard” while “so many around the country have consigned the people’s rights to the graveyard.”

It seems to have made an impression. Endorsing DeSantis for president on his podcast, Joe Rogan declared that “he’s not perfect . . . but what he’s done is stand up for freedoms.” “He’s fighting for the right to keep our state free,” was one lyric in an ode to DeSantis sung by one of the Van Zant brothers.

It’s not really true, though.

DeSantis’s case is that he’s proven himself a champion of freedom by opposing pandemic-era stay-at-home orders, vaccine and mask mandates, and going after conservative boogeymen like critical race theory. As he put it in his State of the State speech this January, “We have protected the right of our citizens to earn a living, provided our businesses with the ability to prosper, fought back against unconstitutional federal mandates, and ensured our kids have the opportunity to thrive.”

But there’s more to freedom than making money and going unvaccinated. Take the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment: freedom of speech, of the free press, freedom to assemble and protest, as well as freedom of religion. How has DeSantis treated these vital freedoms?

Not very well. One of DeSantis’s most high-profile legislative accomplishments was HB 1, also known, misleadingly, as the “anti-riot law.” In reality, the law targeted the right to protest, making “mob intimidation” aimed at changing someone’s political viewpoint a criminal offense, outlawing the blocking of traffic by protesters, and giving legal protections to anyone who “unintentionally” kills or injures protesters while they’re blocking traffic — so extreme, even law enforcement officials thought it went too far.

Note the bill number: HB 1, meaning it was the very first bill introduced that legislative session, a mirror image of the priority given in the Constitution to the very rights DeSantis wants to snuff out. Undeterred after a federal judge blocked the law, deeming it “vague to the point of unconstitutionality” and noting that it “consumes vast swaths of core First Amendment speech.” DeSantis signed another anti-protest bill this past May, seeking to protect political elites from picketing outside their homes.

Not content with trying to outlaw protest, DeSantis has also engaged in one of the other great pastimes of all freedom-loving leaders: banning books. HB 1647, passed at the Florida governor’s urging and signed by him in March, forces schools to put up lists of books they hold in their libraries, and allows parents to lodge objections and have titles removed entirely, removals that would then serve as guidance for other schools when selecting which books to stock.

In other words, thanks to DeSantis, a minority of emotionally stunted weirdos obsessed with sex or upset by history can now simply get books removed from school libraries, and potentially many others, if they’re, say, triggered by an image of two dads, or the history of segregation. One group of busybodies tried to get as many as 156 books censored, ultimately managing to remove only five, including Craig Thompson’s Blankets, a sweet and exceedingly tame graphic novel about young love that features a few pages of stylized sex. In the same county, the law emboldened a sheriff to launch a criminal investigation into local school libraries.

It doesn’t stop there. DeSantis loves freedom so much, he signed a different bill into law taking aim not merely at books with gay characters but at gay teachers and students. Under the vague language of the Parental Rights in Education bill, schools have had been advised to impose draconian restrictions on their teachers’ speech and behavior in case they fall afoul of the law or get sued: the removal of photos of their same-sex partners, barring of certain stickers and clothing seen as being “pro-gay,” or flagging books that deal with race or sexual and gender identity, for instance. Teachers have already quit or been fired.

It’s not just teachers. In the state’s Orange County, teachers have to inform on their own students if they come out to them. A different county school board now forces parents to be notified if a there’s a student “open about their gender identity” in their kid’s PE class or going with them on an overnight trip, and makes arrangements for kids of ignorant or bigoted parents to be separated from them. Numerous LGBTQ kids have been disciplined or gagged for speaking out about their sexual orientation or being trans. According to DeSantis’s press secretary, if you’re appalled by any of this, that means you yourself are a “groomer” — meaning a pedophile.

It’s hard to imagine a more extreme affront to personal freedom. Yet this is the kind of authoritarian assault on individual liberties DeSantis has aggressively pursued in office.

It doesn’t stop there. Among the provisions in DeSantis’s Stop WOKE Act is a ban on any teaching that could make students feel personally responsible for historic injustices as a result of their race, sex, or nationality, under penalty of lawsuit. Once again, the idea is to use overly broad, vague language that leads schools to err on the side of self-censorship and avoid teaching certain topics, particularly ones that cover ugly or upsetting parts of US history, such as slavery or Native American genocide. As DeSantis himself said, “We are not going to use your tax dollars to teach our kids to hate this country or to hate each other.” It’s already led one university to “suspend” a fairly anodyne anti-racism statement from 2020, and professors are complaining it will limit how they teach courses.

What about freedoms in the workplace, where most adults spend the majority of their waking hours? After all, Florida is an at-will employment state, meaning workers can be fired by their boss anytime, for any reason — not only a tyrannical power for anyone to have over a person and to potentially abuse, but one that chills any employee’s ability to speak freely. Given DeSantis has said he wants a “workers’ bill of rights,” this would probably be one of his top priorities. Right?

No, as it turns out. What DeSantis was actually talking about was a bill of rights that lets workers opt out of having to wear masks. DeSantis based this on what the workers themselves supposedly want, even though as late as April, a majority of Floridians supported mask mandates. But even if we accept the dubious idea that all workers unanimously oppose wearing masks at work, it’s absurd to believe this is a higher priority for them than not being arbitrarily fired for whatever spurious reason. It’s a depressingly accurate reflection of how stunted DeSantis’s definition of “freedom” really is.

Similarly, for all his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, DeSantis isn’t opposed to all government mandates. He’s perfectly happy to mandate that women carry an unwanted pregnancy to term if they find out about it after fifteen weeks, even if they were impregnated as a result of rape, incest, or human trafficking, wasting no time in taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s strike down of Roe v. Wade. Thankfully, a Florida judge blocked the law for now, though DeSantis isn’t giving up, appealing the ruling and hoping to eventually have it be the law of the land in his state.

Still, if nothing else, at least Floridians can party and live in exuberance without pandemic-era restrictions on their personal behavior, can’t they? Well, not completely, because one of the other bills DeSantis signed into law this year makes it illegal to play music or any other audio if it can be heard twenty-five feet away or farther, with the state’s police already starting to issue warnings and tickets to violators.

This is Florida under Ron DeSantis: you don’t have to get a vaccine, but you do have to give birth to a baby if you’re raped. You don’t have to wear a mask at work, but your boss can fire you for no reason whenever they want. You don’t have to go to diversity training, but your kids can’t disclose their sexual identity. You don’t have to stay at home during a pandemic, but if the government does something you don’t like, they’ll lock you up for protesting — or for partying a little too loud in your car.

DeSantis and his fans clearly have a very different definition of freedom than the rest of us.