- A federal judge on Thursday ordered Florida’s public colleges to temporarily cease enforcement of the state’s controversial Stop WOKE Act, which bans faculty from discussing certain topics related to race and gender.
- U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in his ruling granting a preliminary injunction that the law’s prohibitions are “dystopian” and directly tread on instructors’ free speech rights.
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, championed the law. DeSantis' office intends to appeal the ruling, his press secretary, Bryan Griffin, said in an email. He said officials "strongly disagree" with Walker's opinion. "The Stop W.O.K.E. Act 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," Griffin said. "An ‘open-minded and critical’ environment necessitates that one is free from discrimination."
The STOP Woke Act — an expansive law that also targeted discussion at the state’s K-12 schools and employers — stems from a trend among conservatives surrounding race-related dialogue.
Nationwide, they have demonized these discussions, saying they stoke division in American society. Republicans often link any talk of race with a long-standing academic framework known as critical race theory, which in part teaches racism is systemic.
Florida’s law, which took effect July 1, blocks the state’s public colleges from promoting those concepts conservatives have deemed alienating, such as that a “person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past.”
At least two lawsuits have challenged the law. The ruling applies to both cases.
One was filed in August by several professors and a college student with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union. The other, filed in September, also came from a professor and student. It was supported by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a civil liberties watchdog.
FIRE argued faculty enjoy the right to air their opinions, whether they favored the prohibited concepts identified in the Stop WOKE Act or not.
The judge opened a sprawling 139-page opinion quoting "1984," George Orwell’s seminal work that tells the tale of a totalitarian regime, and said Florida had muzzled professors “in the name of ‘freedom.’”
The Stop WOKE Act says that professors are free to talk about race and other subjects in objective terms, but critics and the plaintiffs have found this guardrail vague.
Walker also took aim at it, writing in his ruling that what could be considered objective “is utterly ambiguous.”
“According to the State of Florida, so long as professors avoid promotion of one side of a particular idea — or do the State of Florida’s bidding and condemn those ideas that the State has deemed unworthy — professors need fear no consequences from the state,” Walker wrote. “But to step out of line during class and utter a single expression for approval of one of the State of Florida’s disfavored ideas is to risk discipline or even termination.”
The State University System of Florida declined to comment on the ruling Thursday.
Florida policymakers for months have come under fire for intruding into higher education in unprecedented ways. They have passed laws dictating accreditation and tenure policies for public colleges, imposed additional requirements to report foreign donations and attempted to block colleges from accepting gifts from certain countries.
The moves come as DeSantis, who overwhelmingly won reelection last week, jostles for position in a presumed 2024 presidential run.
Politicians have also been installed in leadership positions across the state systems, notably U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who will take the reins of the University of Florida presidency in February.
Former Florida state Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a DeSantis ally, also recently took over as the State University System of Florida’s next chancellor.