Florida's 'Stop WOKE' law to remain blocked in colleges, appeals court rules

A federal appeals court has rejected Florida's request to enforce its "Stop WOKE" law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, maintaining a block on some of its provisions while challenges play out in court.

DeSantis, a Republican, signed the legislation, passed by the GOP-led state Legislature, in April of last year. Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in November temporarily blocked some provisions in the law — which restricts discussions of race, gender and inequality — from being enforced in public colleges and universities, calling it “positively dystopian."

DeSantis' administration then appealed the ruling and asked the court to lift Walker's injunction. That motion was denied by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday.

“The Court did not rule on the merits of our appeal,” Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis' deputy press secretary, said in a statement responding to the decision. “The appeal is ongoing, and we remain confident that the law is constitutional.”

The state has faced multiple challenges to the law.

In August, the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, the Legal Defense Fund and a national law firm filed a lawsuit against the legislation on behalf of a group of students and educators.

They called the legislation racially motivated censorship enacted by the state legislature to tamp down widespread demands to discuss, address and learn about systemic inequalities.

Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney for FIRE, a group that participated in a separate lawsuit against the legislation, said, “In the college classroom, you’re supposed to learn from an exchange of ideas, which means that it’s not one viewpoint that’s being inculcated to students.”

"You don’t get to replace one orthodoxy with another, and you’re not going to get to freedom of speech through censorship," Steinbaugh told NBC News, adding that legislation pushed by DeSantis has a "chilling effect" because professors fear harsh repercussions for their teachings.

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Issues of how race and gender are taught have become a focus in DeSantis’ messaging ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run.

Last month, Rep. Alex Andrade, a Republican representing Pensacola, introduced House Bill 999, which would allow the state Board of Governors to provide direction to universities on removing majors and minors in subjects including critical race theory and gender studies, and bar spending on programs or activities that support such curricula.

DeSantis has pushed for such measures in his remarks to the public.

The ACLU's suit argued that the law violates the First and 14th Amendments, as well as the Equal Protection Clause.

“The 'Stop WOKE Act' limits professors to one perspective only that the Florida legislature likes about systemic racism and sexism,” said Leah Watson, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “In many instances, as our professor plaintiffs have shown, this viewpoint isn't even supported by years of research or scholarship on behalf of academics."

Supporters of the law contend that it protects against mandatory workplace training or classroom instruction that could lead people to feel guilt or anguish because of their race or sex.

Judge Walker, in his lengthy November ruling, pushed back on such arguments, citing George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984.” He wrote, “Defendants’ ‘argument is like the thirteenth chime of a clock: you not only know it’s wrong, but it causes you to wonder about everything you heard before.’”


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