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UN Human Rights Council hears about New College

Written by on Saturday, October 21, 2023

Recent graduate joins chorus of grievances about Florida in Geneva.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Oct. 20, 2023

Host: A group of Floridians wanted to let the world know that their human rights are being violated in this state, and a recently graduated New College student testified before the United Nations in Switzerland this Tuesday. The WSLR News team talked to Madison Markham about her experience.

Johannes Werner: This Tuesday in Geneva, Madison Markham took more than her allotted two minutes to tell the United Nations’ Human Rights Council what it was like to be a student at New College of Florida during a hostile takeover by the Florida government early this year. She took 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

Madison Markham: We only had about two minutes. I think I went a little over, maybe 2 minutes and 15 seconds, but yeah, I had to fit as much as I could about my experience and what is happening on campus and has been happening in a solid 2 minutes. It was difficult. I originally sat and wrote down what I wanted to say, and it was multiple pages long, and I was like there’s no way I can put this into two minutes or one minute.

JW: Markham graduated in May with a degree in sociology and gender studies, but not without being dragged through hate and ridicule in extremist publications, reinforced by a trustee’s remarks. All that, because she was involved in a project that helps trans students on the small campus in Sarasota. Also, before she graduated, the new administration fired the diversity and inclusion officer, plus a gay librarian, shut down the gender studies program, and changed bathroom rules.


MM: I tried to just give an overview, speaking closely to my personal experiences. So, for example, one thing I talked about is how an article from a far-right newspaper that went online and came out the same day [Gov. Ron] DeSantis announced the new trustees. In it was a link to a document to trans-inclusive resources that I worked on. I have a lot of trans friends and peers. It was something I was really passionate about at New College, and I made this sheet with a professor, and right at the top, it says this sheet was made by Madison Markham and by the professor’s name and then our emails. I had to get my email deleted and get a new one because there were concerns from faculty and staff that I might get harassment because it was featured in this article that was accusing by name, some of them by name, the faculty of indoctrination. That was just the same day that was a change I had experienced in life at New College.

JW: The former New College student was part of a group from Florida that says their state government is violating the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States has ratified that covenant.

Traveling to Geneva with Markham was a high school teacher from Miami who cannot teach African American history anymore. There was also a representative of minority rights group Dream Defenders, who was hit by a car whose driver intentionally wanted to hurt protesters. Other groups that took part in the testimony before the Human Rights Council were Florida Rising, Power U Center for Social Change, SURJ, and Community Justice Project.

As part of an annual review process by the United Nations, the group filed a written report summarizing their experiences. Titled “Florida: A Shadow over the Sunshine State”, it targets two ways the state undermines human rights and ultimately democracy: First, by restricting expression, assembly and association; and second, by fueling fear and criminalization in marginalized groups.

The report also implicates the federal government, due to its failure to intervene in Florida.

After the testimonies, the U.S. delegation responded – as Markham puts it – by dodging real answers. The Floridians reacted spontaneously by turning their backs to the U.S. diplomats, Markham says.

The report asks Florida to repeal laws that infringe on international human rights. It also asks the federal government to intervene by taking legal action, and use federal mechanisms to prohibit discrimination. But she is not hopeful for U.S. institutions, and that is ultimately what led Markham to appeal to the international body and a global audience.

MM: The reason for going in front of an international body is because state and federal bodies have not done enough. I know that complaints have been launched to the Florida Ethics Committee, to the Florida Board of Governors, and those have all been dismissed. I know complaints have been made to the Department of Education, with little to no action taken.

JW: Markham fears that with the New College takeover, the Florida government has created a playbook that will be used with other universities in the state and elsewhere.

MM: We’re starting to see what happened at New College spread to other Florida colleges, spread to other states – different pieces, obviously not as severe, not all at once. But New College is a small college, which I think made it easier to be sort of a petri dish.

JW: And what does Markham hope to get out of her appeal to the United Nations?

MM: I think the hopes were to raise awareness. Obviously, the United Nations cannot hold the state accountable. It’s about the government. But the issue here is, the federal government is not intervening enough. We’re seeing the consequences of that, which is hurting Florida. It’s getting worse. Not just the educational issues, but it’s all getting worse. Now we’re seeing copycat bills, the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, takeovers of colleges, or dismantling of diversity and inclusion efforts, which is devastating to people on campus who have lived experiences with racism, transphobia, homophobia, and they need those spaces so they feel welcome on campus. Now seeing that the people in New College are going to Hungary and learning from the people that dismantled their school’s gender studies programs, I think shows that this is an international issue. I have deep concerns about the role the United States could play in spreading the sort of authoritarian rule over academic freedom. How that might spread things not just in Florida, not just in America, but in other places in the world.

JW: Markham – by the way – landed on both feet after graduating, and now works as an assistant for PEN America’s Freedom to Read program.

Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.


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