Judge Blocks Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E.” Censorship Bill From Taking Effect in Higher Education
ORLANDO, Fla. — In an important victory for educators’ and students’ rights to teach and learn free from censorship and discrimination, a federal judge issued an order that will immediately block Florida’s HB 7 — also known as the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (“Stop W.O.K.E. Act) — from being enforced in higher education contexts. The order granted a preliminary injunction to plaintiffs in Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors, a lawsuit filed by a multi-racial group of educators and a student in Florida colleges and universities challenging the discriminatory classroom censorship law that severely restricts Florida educators and students from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender.
The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), and pro bono counsel Ballard Spahr. Florida is one of over a dozen states across the country that have passed laws aimed at censoring discussions around race and gender in the classroom.
“This is a huge victory for everyone who values academic freedom and recognizes the value of inclusive education,” said Emerson Sykes, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “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.”
The lawsuit argues the Stop W.O.K.E. Act violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by imposing viewpoint-based restrictions on instructors and students in higher education that are vague and discriminatory. The complaint also argues that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and will have a disparate impact on Black educators and students.
“We are gratified by the court’s decision to halt this discriminatory law from causing further harm to Florida higher education students and educators and to the state at large,” said Morenike Fajana, assistant counsel with LDF. “Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ youth experience systemic discrimination in their daily lives, and they should not be banned from open conversations with professors who have dedicated their lives to examining these issues and often have similar experiences.”
Rather than allow important issues around race and gender discrimination to be explored in public education, Florida lawmakers — working together with Gov. Ron DeSantis — have moved to impose their own viewpoints in state higher education through the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. The law prohibits educators from teaching or even expressing viewpoints around racism and sexism that are disfavored by Florida lawmakers, even where those viewpoints are widely accepted and considered foundational information in their academic disciplines. The law specifically targets and places vague restrictions on educators’ ability to teach and discuss concepts around the legacy of slavery in America, white privilege, and anti-racism.
“Today, the court sided with Florida educators’ and students’ right to teach and learn free from censorship or discrimination,” said Jerry Edwards, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “The ability to have honest and open discussions about our history and its impact on Black and Brown communities is crucial to our democracy. When we better understand our country’s past and failures, we allow ourselves the opportunity to pave a better future for all.”
The court order found the Stop W.O.K.E. Act violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The order found, “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. This is positively dystopian. It should go without saying that ‘[i]f liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’”
The preliminary injunction will immediately block the state from enforcing the law in institutions of higher education in Florida. And in separate litigation, Judge Mark Walker blocked the law from affecting Florida employers. However, K-12 schools are still being impacted by this classroom censorship law. The preliminary victory in the case could bolster similar challenges to classroom censorship efforts in other states.
“It’s an honor to work with the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, and Legal Defense Fund on this matter, and in particular to represent these clients who agreed to take a public stance against injustice,” said Jason Leckerman, litigation department chair at Ballard Spahr. “It’s vitally important that education be free from censorship and discrimination. On a larger scale, much work remains to be done, but today, we can take a moment to be proud of what we’ve come together to accomplish thus far.”
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