After his decisive victory in Florida’s gubernatorial race last week, Ron DeSantis called the Sunshine State the place where “wokeness” is dying. But a federal judge struck down that idea Thursday, blocking Florida’s state university system from enforcing a new law that places strict limits on what professors can teach or say about race in the classroom.
In a 139-page scorcher order, Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida presented an Orwellian defense of the state’s personal freedom law, also known as the Stop WOKE Act. The regulation is in response to lawsuits by university faculty and college students who argued that the law banning the expression of certain views, such as those related to gender and race, is unconstitutional. In defense of the law, the state has argued that professors at public universities do not have free speech when it comes to what they teach. In his order, Walker took strong exception to this argument.
“Defendants argue that under this law, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those views that the state approves,” Walker wrote. “It’s positively dystopian.”
Walker, who was was named to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2012, is known for its rhetorical flourishes. In the opening lines of his order granting the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction in part, the federal judge quoted George Orwell 1984 year. “It was a bitterly cold April day and the clock struck three,” Walker wrote, “and the authorities in charge of Florida’s public university system have announced that the state has unlimited power to silence its professors.” freedom.”
According to the Personal Freedom Act, professors are prohibited from “training or instruction that supports, promotes, promotes, instills, or coerces … a student[s] or an employee[s] to believe” eight specified concepts. Among other things, these concepts include promoting the belief that “a person is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive because of their race, color, national origin, or sex, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Florida’s law is part of a broader conservative backlash against “woke” liberalism and critical race theory in colleges and schools. DeSantis, who is expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, has made these issues central to his political identity. As governor, DeSantis has the power to appoint most members of the state’s Board of Governors, the system-wide university governing body. By law, it falls to the board ferret’s uncontrollable “awakeness” and enforce prohibitions against it. (Violation of the law may lead to withdrawal of performance-based funding from the state.)
Walker’s order, however, tells the board to enforce its order. Jerry C. Edwards, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who represented some of the plaintiffs, said the order sent a strong signal to public colleges and the Legislature.
“We are very pleased with this decision,” he said. “Judge Walker prohibited the Florida Board of Governors from enforcing this law, which he called ‘positively dystopian.’
A spokesman for the Board of Governors said in an email that the board “had no comment as it is our policy not to comment on pending litigation.”
This is at least the second time this year that Walker has written a strong order involving First Amendment issues at public universities. In January, he issued a gag order against the University of Florida, saying it could not enforce a policy that prevented university professors from participating in anti-state litigation.
Walker’s order Thursday took a strong swipe at what the judge described as the troubling notion that a state can ban speech it doesn’t like.
“Defendants respond that the First Amendment provides no protection here,” Walker wrote. “They argue that because university professors are public sector employees, they are simply mouthpieces of the state in university classrooms. As a result, defendants argue, the state has unlimited authority to limit what professors can say in class, even at the university level. According to the defendants, as long as professors work for the state, everyone must read the same music.
Edwards, the ACLU attorney, said Walker’s two orders point to judicial review of efforts to infringe on professors’ free speech rights. “This decision and another decision says that the state of Florida has not been good at protecting free speech on college campuses and promoting free speech on college campuses and that the courts have not,” Edwards said. “They push back and say you have to respect the First Amendment. You have to respect academic freedom.