Education

"Positively Dystopian": Federal Judge Blocks Florida Stop WOKE Act

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at a "Unite & Win Rally" at Arizona Financial Theatre.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at a "Unite & Win Rally" at Arizona Financial Theatre. Photo by Gage Skidmore
A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction against Florida's so-called Stop WOKE Act, slamming the brakes on the state's enforcement of the controversial law that restricts teaching about systemic racism in public schools.

In a 139-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee blasted the Stop WOKE Act, now known as the Individual Freedom Act, which had been championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The judge ruled that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by barring Florida's educators from expressing certain viewpoints in university classrooms, while permitting "unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints" favored by the State of Florida.

"This is positively dystopian," Walker wrote. "It should go without saying that if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’”

Promoted as the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, the bill signed into law earlier this year restricted educators and corporations from broaching sensitive topics about race.

Among other concepts restricted in public schools, the law banned teaching the idea that people are "privileged or oppressed" solely because of their race, national origin, or sex. The act also restricted teaching that a person's race, national origin, or sex can predispose the person to biases, "whether consciously or unconsciously."

DeSantis claimed that the law was designed to prevent radical leftist theories from spreading in public schools. He said it would prevent children from being shamed about their race and historical wrongs over which they have no control.

Critics have decried it as vague, hard to enforce, and destructive to bedrock educational principles. One of the country's foremost experts on McCarthyism told New Times early this month that the act and similar laws recently passed around the country are on par with the redbaiting and scare tactics employed in the "Second Red Scare" of the 1950s.

The ruling was handed down today in a lawsuit (Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors) filed in August by a group of educators and students from Florida colleges and universities.

The state's lawyers had argued that public school teachers do not have First Amendment rights when they're on-the-clock and in the classroom, because they are acting as mouthpieces of the state.

Walker disagreed. He distinguished between this case and instances in which federal courts have ruled that states have the power to control school curricula and limit teachers' speech.

"Defendants... ask this Court to read these cases to conflate the State’s right to make content-based choices in setting the public school curriculum with unfettered discretion in limiting a professor’s ability to express certain viewpoints about the content of the curriculum once it has been set," Walker wrote.

The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, and the Legal Defense Fund (LDF).

“We are gratified at the court’s decision to halt this discriminatory law from causing further harm to Florida higher education students and educators and to the state at large,” said Morenike Fajana, assistant counsel with LDF. “Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ youth experience systemic discrimination in their daily lives, and they should not be banned from open conversations with professors who have dedicated their lives to examining these issues and often have similar experiences.”

Bryan Griffin, spokesperson for the governor's office, says the state intends to appeal the ruling.

"We strongly disagree with Judge Walker’s preliminary injunction orders on the enforcement of the Stop W.O.K.E. Act and will continue to fight to prevent Florida’s students and employees from being subjected to discriminatory classroom instruction or mandated discriminatory workplace training," Griffin said in a statement. 

Florida is just one of more than a dozen states across the nation that have recently passed laws aimed at censoring race and gender discussions in the classroom. The laws were, in large part, a reaction to reports of critical race theory being taught in public school settings.

Back in August, in a separate case, Walker issued a preliminary injunction blocking a portion of the Stop WOKE Act that dealt with race-related workplace training. He enjoined a provision of the law which prohibited employers from requiring employees to participate in diversity training courses that espoused  certain concepts about systemic racism.
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Alex DeLuca is a staff writer at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca

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