On Thursday, a federal court decided that Florida cannot try to control what opinions public college professors can espouse in class—a decisive victory for opponents of the state’s Individual Freedom Act, commonly known as the “Stop WOKE Act.”
A lawsuit filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) argued that the Stop WOKE Act violated professors’ First Amendment rights by illegally constraining what viewpoints they can espouse on a range of topics related to race, sex, and gender. On Thursday, a federal court agreed, writing that Florida cannot “prophylactically muzzle professors from expressing certain viewpoints.”
Florida’s Stop WOKE Act was signed into law last April and is intended to curb teaching about or conducting trainings on certain topics related to race, sex, and gender in Florida public schools and workplaces. The law was passed with the clear intention to curb “critical race theory” in the state—and to do so through outright censorship.
“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,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) after the bill’s signing.
The law’s provisions clearly violate the First Amendment, and it has already faced a major setback in federal courts. In August, a federal district court granted a preliminary injunction against the part of the law relating to employers, with one judge comparing Florida to an “upside down” world where the state has the power to regulate private companies’ speech.
Now, another main provision of the law has been halted. On Thursday, a federal court ruled that the law violated the First Amendment rights of college and university professors, granting a preliminary injunction against portions of the law pertaining to higher education. The law’s provisions relating to public K-12 education remain in effect.
In his opinion, Judge Mark E. Walker described the law as “positively dystopian,” writing that, “The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints. Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves.”
The state of Florida argued that the law is constitutional because professors speak for the government, and the government has a compelling interest in stopping “racism” in the form of critical race theory and similar concepts. Walker dismissed these claims. Restricting professor’s speech “in the name of reducing racism does not insulate the State from the First Amendment’s reach,” Walker wrote.
“Faculty members are hired to offer opinions from their academic expertise—not toe the party line,” FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh said in a press release. “Florida’s argument that faculty members have no First Amendment rights would have imperiled faculty members across the political spectrum.”
Florida’s Stop WOKE Act has now had two major provisions stopped by federal courts. The law’s second defeat only reiterates the futility of attempting to quash disfavored speech with blatantly unconstitutional legislation.