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Federal judge strikes down DeSantis-backed ‘Stop WOKE’ law on college campuses: ‘Positively dystopian’

Restrictions on discussions of race and gender amount to unconstitutional discrimination, judge rules

Alex Woodward
New York
Saturday 19 November 2022 18:25 GMT
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A federal judge has blocked Florida officials from enforcing what he derided as a “positively dystopian” law prohibiting how colleges and universities can deliver lessons on race and gender, a measure promoted by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and his allies.

The 138-page order and preliminary injunction from US District Judge Mark Walker marks a victory for a group of educators and a student in Florida colleges and universities, represented by attorneys for civil rights groups alleging that the “Individual Freedom Act” or “Stop WOKE Act” amount to unconstitutional classroom censorship that restricts teachers and students from learning about and discussing race and gender.

In his ruling, Judge Walker, who was appointed by Barack Obama, invoked George Orwell’s novel 1984 to criticise the law’s apparent doubletalk, writing that “‘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’.”

He determined that the law violates free speech protections under the First Amendment and equal protection under the 14th Amendment because of its disparate impact on Black teachers and students.

“The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints,” he wrote. “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian.”

In a separate ruling from August involving the law’s workplace regulations, Judge Walker compared the state to the “upside down” from the Netflix series Stranger Things, accusing Florida lawmakers of trampling First Amendment rights and imposing a “naked viewpoint-based regulation on speech”.

Emerson Sykes, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement that the ruling is a “huge victory for everyone who values academic freedom and recognizes the value of inclusive education.”

“The First Amendment broadly protects our right to share information and ideas, and this includes educators’ and students’ right to learn, discuss, and debate systemic racism and sexism,” he added.

LGBT+ students and students of colour “should not be banned from open conversations with professors who have dedicated their lives to examining these issues and often have similar experiences,” according to a statement from Morenike Fajana, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Judge Walker has now blocked the law from affecting both Florida employers and college campuses, but it remains in effect for students and staff in kindergarten through 12th grade schools, which are separately impacted by another law, the Parental Rights in Education Act, which has been denounced by its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law.

Governor DeSantis and Republican lawmakers pursued the “Stop WOKE” Act to target “critical race theory”, a legal framework to examine systemic racism that its opponents have invoked to broadly restrict discussion of concepts from inequity and social justice to honest instruction on civil rights history and racist violence.

The governor signed the legislation into law earlier this year.

His administration intends to appeal Judge Walker’s decision.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys suggest that the latest victory would bolster similar challenges to classroom censorship efforts underway in other states. Within the last year, more than a dozen states have introduced similar measures aimed at restricting classroom instruction on race and gender.

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