DeSantis’s War on Woke Hits a Wall, With Court Calling It Unconstitutional

A federal judge ruled that Florida’s ‘Stop WOKE’ act violates the First Amendment, is impermissibly vague, and borders on ‘unintelligible.’

Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP
Governor DeSantis signing legislation on March 28, 2022. Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP

Governor DeSantis’s war on wokeness hit a wall late Thursday when a federal judge ruled unconstitutional recent legislation barring critical race theory and the ideas that underpin it from being promulgated in Florida schools and workplaces.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida blocked the state from enforcing parts of Mr. DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” act, saying that the law violates the First Amendment, is impermissibly vague, and borders on “unintelligible.”

Also known as the Individual Freedom Act, the law, which took effect July 1, bars schools and businesses from blaming or shaming individuals because of their race or gender, taking aim at training based on critical race theory that invokes “white privilege” and racism as systemic in American culture. The law states that a person should not be made to “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of race, sex, or national origin.

In his 44-page ruling, Judge Walker said the law turns the First Amendment “upside down” by restricting diversity, equity, and inclusion training by private businesses.

“If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case,” the judge wrote. “But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents.”

Mr. DeSantis signed the bill to great fanfare among his conservative supporters, saying the first-of-its-kind legislation would protect students, employees, and families from “woke indoctrination.”

“No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race,” Mr. DeSantis said. “In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces. There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.”

Three separate lawsuits have been filed challenging the law.

Thursday’s ruling was in one brought by Honeyfund.com, a Clearwater-based company that offers online wedding registries, a Ben and Jerry’s franchise in the state, and others. The lawsuit claimed that the law — which opens the door to civil lawsuits targeting companies with more than 15 employees — infringes on the companies’ training programs that stress diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Diversity in the workplace is good for business,” Honeyfund’s CEO, Sara Margulis, said on Twitter after the ruling. “Diversity training often addresses concepts like systemic racism, unconscious bias, and privilege. This is why @Honeyfund challenged this illegal restriction on free speech.”

A second lawsuit, by a group of college professors and students, said the law amounts to “racially motivated censorship” that will impede on their right to study inequality and racism.

“In place of free and open academic inquiry and debate, instructors fear discussing topics of oppression, privilege, and race and gender inequalities with which the Legislature disagrees,” the lawsuit says. “As a result, students are either denied access to knowledge altogether or instructors are forced to present incomplete or inaccurate information that is steered toward the Legislature’s own views.”

The third lawsuit, by a group of K-12 teachers and students, makes similar allegations, claiming that the law violates the principles of academic freedom and the Constitution’s protection of free expression.

“The Stop WOKE Act aims to forward the government’s preferred narrative of history and society and to render illegal speech that challenges that narrative,” their lawsuit says.

Judge Walker’s ruling included a temporary injunction that prevents enforcement of the law as the legal battle plays out. In an earlier ruling in the lawsuit focused on the educational aspects of the law, the judge denied an injunction but allowed the case to move forward with a jury trial set for April.

Mr. DeSantis’s office has not responded to the judge’s ruling, but in the past has said that it expected the challenges and would appeal any such rulings from the lower courts.


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