Federal judge says Florida has turned into Stranger Things ‘upside down’ as he blocks DeSantis-backed ‘Stop WOKE’ Act

Restrictions on workplace bias and diversity training violate First Amendment, judge rules

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 18 August 2022 21:06 BST
Related video: Florida governor Ron DeSantis slams ‘woke CEOs’
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A federal judge has partially suspended a Florida law backed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis that restricts classroom instruction and workplace training on race, gender and inequality.

In his ruling on 18 August, US District Judge Mark 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”.

“In the popular television series Stranger Things, the ‘upside down’ describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world,” Judge Walker wrote.

“Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment upside down. Normally, the First Amendment bars the state from burdening speech, while private actors may burden speech freely. But in Florida, the First Amendment apparently bars private actors from burdening speech, while the state may burden speech freely,” he added.

Judge Walker wrote that “like the heroine in Stranger Things, this Court is once again asked to pull Florida back from the upside down.”

The “Individual Freedom Act” or “Stop WOKE” law is the subject of several lawsuits challenging its constitutionality and alleging racial discrimination to chill classroom and workplace speech.

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

The governor signed the legislation earlier this year as part of his administration’s efforts to combat what he has called “corporate wokeness.”

Workplace training that includes certain instruction on racism, sexism, privilege and merit-based advancement could constitute discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin, according to the law.

Honeymoon registry company Honeyfund.com, Ben & Jerry’s franchisee Primo Tampa and workplace diversity consultancy Collective Concepts filed a lawsuit against Governor DeSantis alleging that that the law aims to centre a government-approved narrative of history and render challenging speech illegal while muzzling private companies and institutions, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Judge Walker argued that the law is “designed to exorcise” opposing viewpoints while allowing the state to “weaponise” the idea of objectivity to “further discredit the prohibited concepts”.

His ruling on Thursday grants a preliminary injunction that blocks enforcement of the law’s restrictions on workplace bias and diversity training initiatives.

“Florida’s legislators may well find plaintiffs’ speech repugnant. But under our constitutional scheme, the remedy for repugnant speech is more speech, not enforced silence,” the judge wrote.

Shalini Goel Agarwal, counsel at Protect Democracy, which represents the plaintiffs, said in a statement that they look “forward to proceeding to trial, winning, and seeing this law permanently overturned”.

“It is a direct attack on American free speech values as well as on free enterprise in Florida,” she said.

Earlier on Thursday, civil rights groups filed a separate lawsuit on behalf of a group of Florida university professors and students to strike down the law, alleging that Florida unconstitutionally discriminates against Black educators and students with vague restrictions on classroom speech.

The law infringes on their ability to teach and learn about concepts related to antiracism, civil rights and the legacies of racist violence, according to the plaintiffs.

Leah Watson, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told reporters on Thursday that the law effectively created a “gag” order that restricts instruction on systemic racism and sexism, limiting educators to only endorsing one viewpoint, and prohibiting instruction on the ways in which racism is embedded in American society.

The law can be used to silence Black educators, who are more likely to teach prohibited concepts, and students of colour, who are more likely to seek out such coursework, according to Morenike Fajana, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“This law is really about suppressing antiracist speech and education,” she said. “So many professors who teach critical race theory or critical race studies … now face this impossible choice to continue faithfully teaching or violate [the law].”

The Independent has requested comment from the governor’s office, the Florida Board of Governors and Department of Education.

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