A Florida open government watchdog has sued the New College of Florida and one of its new trustees, conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo, after both the school and Rufo did not respond to a public records request for Rufo’s text messages and phone logs, according to a complaint filed late Tuesday.
The Florida Center for Government Accountability seeks an immediate hearing on its “motion to show cause” why the records haven’t been released, according to filings by its attorney, Andrea Flynn Mogensen, in Sarasota Circuit Civil court. A representative of the group said the request was sparked in part by the ouster of New College President Patricia Okker and her replacement by former state education commissioner and past Florida House speaker Richard Corcoran as interim president.
A request for comment from the college is pending. A spokesperson for the State University System, which oversees the school, said it does not comment on pending litigation. A spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed Rufo, said the office had no comment "at this time."
In his second inauguration address in January, DeSantis targeted “trendy ideology” in higher education. DeSantis’ chief of staff James Uthmeier was later quoted by The Daily Caller as saying the revamped New College board could remake the school “along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South” — referring to the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan.
New College has long been a haven for progressive and anti-establishment students; as a tour guide once said of the school, “We haven’t completely grown out of the hippie era,” according to a 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune story. On the other hand, DeSantis has recently directed state higher-education officials to gather information about money colleges and universities spend on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, and on teaching critical race theory, which holds that racism is deeply embedded in American society.
Watchdog wants texts, logs of calls made in 17-day period
The center’s complaint said it “sought public records made, received and sent by Rufo during a 17-day period in January 2023. No records have been produced by Rufo or New College, on whose behalf Rufo acts.”
It didn’t lay out the reason for the request. In a statement, Michael Barfield – the center’s director of public access who signed the records request – told City & State his group was "aware of significant events occurring at New College, including the ouster of the president and installation of a political appointee. The public is entitled to know what records exist that might shed additional light on these events."
Specifically, the request – dated Jan. 23 – sought:
- All texts sent to or from Christopher Rufo between Jan. 6, 2023, through Jan. 23, 2023, including on any personal, nongovernmental account.
- A log of all text activity for Christopher Rufo between Jan. 6, 2023, and Jan. 23, 2023, including on any personal, nongovernmental account.
- A log of all phone calls made or received by Christopher Rufo between Jan. 6, 2023, and Jan. 23, 2023.
Rufo’s appointment to the New College board was announced on Jan. 6 – three days after DeSantis' second inauguration. Rufo and fellow trustee Eddie Speir held two forums on campus on Jan. 25, in which he characterized his mandate to remake the school as being a “hostage rescue operation,” according to the Washington Post. Rufo also tweeted on the day of his appointment, "We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within."
Suit came after 30-day deadline in state law
The complaint said the suit was triggered by a 30-day deadline in state public records law, adding that “to date, not a single record has been produced, nor has New College or Rufo sought clarification of the scope of the records request.”
It also asks for a court order “finding that (the) defendants are obligated to preserve all records responsive to the records request even if they contend that certain records are not a public record.” The center seeks texts that may have been sent or received on Rufo’s personal phone if they pertain to his work as a New College trustee.
Rufo was one of six trustees tapped last month, with the governor’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, saying they could address what he called a “skewed focus” at New College.
“The New College of Florida is a public institution with a statutorily stated mission of ‘provid(ing) a quality education.’ Unfortunately, like so many colleges and universities in America, this institution has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning,” Griffin told the News Service of Florida in a statement.
The Board of Governors of the State University System on Wednesday approved a base salary of $699,000 for Corcoran; Okker was paid a base salary of $305,000, records show. Corcoran's contract also calls for him to stay on till September 2024 if a permanent president hasn't been hired before then.