A Florida judge on Thursday declared a Florida law backed by Republican Ron DeSantis that restricts race-based conversations and analyzes in business and education unconstitutional.
Tallahassee US District Judge Mark Walker said in a 44-page ruling that the Stop WOKE Act violates the First Amendment and is impermissibly vague. Walker also refused to issue a stay of law during any appeal by the state.
The law targets what DeSantis called the “malicious” ideology of critical race theory – the idea that racism is systemic in American institutions that perpetuate white supremacy in society.
Walker said the law, as applied to diversity, inclusion, and bias training in business, turns the First Amendment “upside down” because the state forbids speech by prohibiting discussion of certain concepts in training programs.
“If Florida really believes that we live in a post-racist society, let it make its case,” the judge wrote. “But she cannot win the argument by muzzling her opponents.”
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. DeSantis has repeatedly said that any lower court-level losses on his priorities are likely to be reversed by more conservative appellate courts in general.
The law prohibits teaching or business practices that assert that members of one racial group are inherently racist and should feel guilty for past actions of others. It also blocks the idea that a person’s status as privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by race or gender, or that discrimination is acceptable to achieve diversity.
Thursday’s ruling came in one of three lawsuits challenging the Stop WOKE Act. Filed by private entities, Clearwater-based Honeyfund.com Others claim that their rights to free speech are restricted because the law violates corporate training programs that emphasize diversity and inclusion, eliminate prejudice, and prevent workplace harassment. Companies with 15 or more employees may face civil lawsuits over these practices.
That lawsuit says Honeyfund seeks to protect the rights of private sector employers to “engage in the open and free exchange of information with employees to identify and address discrimination and harm” in their organizations.
Another lawsuit, filed Thursday by university professors and students, claims the law amounts to “racially motivated censorship” that will “stifle pervasive demands to discuss, study, and address systemic inequality” underscored by the national debate on race after the murder of George Floyd, who was black, by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
“Instead of free and open academic inquiry and debate, educators are afraid to discuss topics of oppression, privilege, and inequality of race and gender with which the legislation disagrees,” the lawsuit says. “As a result, students are denied access to knowledge altogether or teachers are forced to provide incomplete or inaccurate information that is directed toward the views of the legislature.”
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Conservatives see critical race theory as less an academic inquiry into truth and history than an assumption of a divisive ideology stemming from Marxism that categorizes people into categories of the oppressed and the oppressed on the basis of their race.
Like the professors, a group of K-12 teachers and a student claimed in a third pending lawsuit that the law violated the Constitution’s protections for free speech, academic freedom, and access to information in public schools.
“The Stop WOKE Act is intended to reorient the government’s preferred narrative of history and society and to issue illegal rhetoric that challenges that narrative,” the lawsuit says.
DeSantis is running for re-election as governor this year and is widely seen as a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He has made cultural issues a cornerstone of his administration, particularly eliminating what he calls “awakened” entities and philosophies that focus on issues of discrimination involving Race, gender, and sexual orientation.
“What you see now with the rise of this awakened ideology is an attempt to truly delegitimize our history and delegitimize our institutions, and I consider slander to be a form of cultural Marxism,” DeSantis said in a speech in December 2021. “They really want to tear the fabric of our society apart.”
Another example is DeSantis’ efforts to penalize Walt Disney World for the company’s opposition to the Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics have described as a “Don’t Say Gay” law because it limits sexual orientation directives in the early grades and sparks goosebumps about the issue in general in schools.
The governor pushed the legislature to end an independent Disney World special district that essentially enabled it to run its own government. This law is not fully effective until June 2023 but has already been challenged in court.
Other lawsuits have challenged DeSantis’ priorities such as a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, a measure to fine tech companies if they “dismiss” political candidates because of their views, a “riot” law enacting new felonies after Black Lives Matter protests and a law setting new restrictions on the elections.
— By Kurt Anderson, Associated Press
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