Florida House approves new limits on talk of race in schools, workplaces sought by DeSantis

But critic said bill 'is not the right way to unite America'

John Kennedy

New statewide requirements on how race is discussed in schools, colleges and workplaces were approved by the Florida House, despite withering criticism that it amounts to censorship.

The measure, which drew hours of heated debate Thursday, is aimed at meeting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ demand for a Stop WOKE Act, blunting what he has warned is liberal ideology influencing the teaching of history in schools and coursing through corporate diversity training.

“I see it as a free market bill in the neighborhood of ideas,” said Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola.

But Democrats called the measure another example of the GOP reaching into Florida classrooms and imposing new standards certain to cause problems for teachers, while also heightening the threat of lawsuits for businesses.

“This is not the right way to unite America,” said Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, of the measure (HB 7), approved in a party-line, 74-41 vote. “It is just a distraction.” 

The legislation — which still needs Senate approval before going to DeSantis, who is certain to sign it into law — prohibits any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin.

At work, employment practices or training programs that make an individual feel guilty on similar grounds could be considered an unlawful employment practice – and subject a company to a lawsuit as a civil rights violation.

Protecting the majority

While civil rights protections are commonly seen as protecting minorities and women, the legislation, called an “act related to individual freedom,” is seen by opponents as shielding whites and men in discussions from being blamed for historic wrongs.

The measure responds to a drumbeat from conservative media that has condemned critical race theory, which examines the role discrimination has played in shaping American history and modern society.

Although not taught in Florida schools, DeSantis has advanced the fear that critical race theory threatens to influence how history and social science is taught. He got the Florida Board of Education last year to specifically ban its use in schools.

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Democrats, particularly Black lawmakers, said the legislation is intended to diminish the inequities faced by minorities in this country, largely because it could make white students feel uncomfortable.

“I’m tired of being knocked down and told how to feel about it,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, adding that the bill was a “classic example of a false equivalency.”

Rep. Fentrice Driskell speaks during debate of a bill on the House floor at the Capitol Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

Who is offended?

“We keep talking about not offending the feelings of the listener,” Driskell said. “What about the feelings of the speaker? What about my rights, my story? Moving toward a more inclusive society is a good thing.”

The legislation was amended notably to allow the discussion of racial discrimination, oppression and segregation, and how many “unjust laws” were overturned. But lawmakers bar anything intended to “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, said critics' fears were misplaced.

“This bill makes it clear that in Florida, people will be judged as individuals, by their words, their character and their actions, and not by their race, their sex or their national origin,” Avila said. “We must focus on building character, and not assigning blame.”

Rep. Bryan Avila speaks in the House of Representatives during opening day of the 2022 Legislative Session Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.

Avila has said that teachers sticking to lesson plans that reflect district-set curriculum shouldn’t have a problem or draw complaints from parents. But banned by the bill would be any comments by the teacher that make a student feel targeted or responsible for the past.

At work, employment practices or training programs that make an individual feel guilty on similar grounds could be considered an unlawful employment practice – and subject a company to a lawsuit as a civil rights violation.

“This Legislature is opening up all our small businesses in this state to a whole new round of litigation,” said Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg. He said if someone feels “aggrieved” by what they hear in diversity training, they “can sue their employer.”

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport