Florida Educators Urge Appeals Court to Block Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. Act

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
June 14, 2024 12:30 pm

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MIAMI — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit will hear arguments today in Pernell v. Lamb, a lawsuit challenging the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, a classroom censorship law which restricts educators from teaching about race and gender in public schools, higher education institutions, and workplaces. This argument marks the first time an appellate court will consider the constitutionality of this type of law. On Monday, June 17, the team will host an on-the-record press briefing via Zoom to discuss. Interested press can RSVP HERE.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), and the law firm Ballard Spahr are representing a group of Florida professors at public universities who are now severely restricted from engaging in classroom instruction about certain issues related to race and gender.

Florida’s law bans educators from teaching about systemic racism and sexism simply because powerful political figures disagree,” said Leah Watson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “The impact of censorship is heightened in higher education, where students are often learning to critically examine new ideas and grapple with complexities for the first time. All students and educators deserve to have a free and open exchange about issues related to race in our classrooms — not censored discussions that erase the history of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ individuals.”

The law specifically targets and places vague restrictions on educators’ ability to teach concepts such as racism, sexism, white privilege, and unconscious bias. It also imposes harsh penalties, including ineligibility for all performance funding from the state for the colleges and universities — and termination — for educators who have been found to violate the law. However, because the law is so vague, it is extremely difficult for educators to determine what they can or can’t teach, or what views might be interpreted to violate the law, leading to a chilling effect in the classroom.

“What is at stake here is the ability of society — through its educational institutions of higher learning — to learn, discuss, and develop tools for combatting the complex issue of racism in our country without being gagged by those who would dictate that only state-approved thought may be promoted,” said LeRoy Pernell, a Florida A&M University College of Law professor and the named plaintiff in this lawsuit. “This thought-level policing is inconsistent with a free nation and unacceptable to those committed to having their voices heard regarding the significance of systemic racism in our history.”

As the lawsuit explains, the Stop W.O.K.E. Act violates the First and 14th Amendments by imposing viewpoint-based restrictions that limit instruction on hotly debated topics to the perspective favored by the legislature. Additionally, the Stop W.O.K.E. Act violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was enacted with the intent to discriminate against Black educators and students.

“The ability of our country to function as a multicultural democracy relies on the ability to openly and honestly discuss the history of racism and the lived experiences of Black people. Our institutions of higher learning cannot shy away from or censor these discussions,” said Morenike Fajana, senior counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. “The Stop W.O.K.E. Act is part of a strategic effort to suppress the voice, history, and political participation of Black people in the United States and would significantly impact our communities for decades to come. We hope the court recognizes that this law is unconstitutional and harmful to us all.”

In March of last year, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals left in place a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of law, reaffirming the serious injury posed to educators and students by this law.

“The Stop W.O.K.E Act continues to threaten academic freedom, particularly for Black Floridians’ whose history this legislation attempts to erase,” said Jerry Edwards, staff attorney of the ACLU of Florida. “We hope the court strikes down this law once and for all, so students and educators can once again be free to have full and open discussions around race and gender in the classroom, without fear of punishment.”

Since the Stop W.O.K.E Act went into effect, dozens of states have moved to introduce and pass classroom censorship bills. However, just last month, a federal court struck down a similar law in another ACLU lawsuit in New Hampshire, holding that the law's vagueness violated the 14th Amendment.

“The movement to restrict academic freedom and curtail the rights of marginalized communities is as pervasive as it is pernicious,” said Jason Leckerman, litigation department chair at Ballard Spahr. “We are proud of the work we have done so far with our partners, the ACLU and Legal Defense Fund, but the fight is far from over."

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