A federal judge on Thursday ordered Florida to stop enforcing its new “Stop WOKE Act” at the state’s public colleges and universities.
The ruling came in two lawsuits — one filed by a University of South Florida student and professor and another by a Florida A&M professor — both alleging that the law illegally prevents frank discussions about the nation’s racial history in classrooms.
The legislation prohibits advancing concepts that make anyone feel “guilt, anguish or other psychological distress” related to race, color, national origin or sex because of actions “committed in the past.” It is also tied to proposed regulations that would govern tenure reviews of faculty members.
Professor Adriana Novoa and student Sam Rechek, both from USF, argued the law was unconstitutional. The state countered that the law has not harmed the plaintiffs and does not prohibit some of the discussions of the race-related topics mentioned in the lawsuit.
In Pernell’s lawsuit also challenging ‘Stop WOKE,’ the same lawyers wrote that because faculty members are employees of the state, “the First Amendment simply has no application in this context” because their employer “has simply chosen to regulate its own speech.”
Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights Expression, said the ruling was important for faculty of all political persuasions — including those who may have favored the Stop WOKE Act. The foundation is representing Novoa and Rechek.
The ruling “recognizes that faculty members are hired by the state but they don’t speak for the state,” Steinbaugh said. “They’re hired to engage in the robust exchange of views and ideas. Some of those views and ideas are going to be ones the state doesn’t like.”
In his order issuing a preliminary injunction against the law, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker quoted George Orwell:
“‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,’ and the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom.’”
He wrote that the state was trying to argue that professors only had academic freedom if they expressed the viewpoint of the state.
“This is positively dystopian,” he wrote.
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.