Gov. Ron DeSantis dealt 'Stop Woke' setback, after promoting policy on Election Night
TALLAHASSEE — Just over a week after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared that Florida was “where woke goes to die,” a federal judge blocked another key provision of the state’s “Stop Woke Act,” calling “positively dystopian” its limits on discussion of race, gender and other topics in university classrooms.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled Thursday that the law violates the First Amendment rights of students and faculty. Walker had already stopped from enforcement another part of the law which restricts what can be discussed in workplace training.
While DeSantis’ nicknamed the law the Stop Woke Act, its official title is the “Individual Freedom Act.” Walker called that the “State’s doublespeak.”
“In this case, the State of Florida lays the cornerstone of its own Ministry of Truth under the guise of the Individual Freedom Act, declaring which viewpoints shall be orthodox and which shall be verboten in its university classrooms,” Walker wrote in his 139-page ruling.
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Walker’s decision comes just over a week after DeSantis celebrated his 19-point re-election victory over Democrat Charlie Crist with a combative speech in which he used Churchillian rhythms to tout his accomplishments.
“We have respected our taxpayers and we reject woke ideology,” DeSantis told the crowd at his Tampa election night rally. “We fight the woke in the Legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”
Feeds into culture warrior image
DeSantis is widely seen as angling for the Republican nomination for president in two years with Thursday’s ruling holding the potential of further stirring up conservatives who support the governor’s eagerness to fight on cultural issues.
Former President Donald Trump is already in the 2024 race, announcing his candidacy Tuesday with an event at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach. He told supporters he would end federal funding for schools that "push critical race theory."
But Walker opened his ruling by quoting the opening sentence of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.”
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” and the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom,’” Walker wrote.
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DeSantis, through Attorney General Ashley Moody, is certain to appeal the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The state in September appealed Walker’s earlier decision affecting the restrictions on workplace training.
"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," said Bryan Griffin, a DeSantis spokesman.
Griffin added that the law, "protects the open exchange of ideas by prohibiting teachers or employers who hold agency over others from forcing discriminatory concepts on students as part of classroom instruction or on employees as a condition of maintaining employment."
DeSantis laid out a blueprint for the new Individual Freedom Act — calling it the Stop the Wrongs to our Kids and Employees — and the Republican-controlled Legislature quickly endorsed the governor’s idea last spring.
What the law limits
The measure expands anti-discrimination laws to ban schools, universities and companies from making students and employees feel guilt or blame for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin.
It blocked businesses from using diversity practices or training that could make employees feel guilty for similar reasons. Anyone offended could sue an institution or individual, arguing their civil rights were violated by being made subject to such instruction.
Universities also could lose state funding under the law, for any classroom violations.
“College campuses are spaces for debate, not dogma,” said Greg H. Greubel, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which sued in September on the higher education provisions on behalf of a University of South Florida professor, students and a student group.
“Americans recognize that the government cannot be an all-powerful force permitted to control every word uttered by a professor in the classroom,” he added. “Today’s ruling is an important first step in ensuring that professors’ First Amendment rights are respected by the state of Florida.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also represented plaintiffs in the case.
“This is a huge victory for everyone who values academic freedom and recognizes the value of inclusive education,” said Emerson Sykes, an ACLU attorney.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport