After his decisive victory within the Florida governor’s race last week, Ron DeSantis dubbed the Sunshine State because the place “where ‘woke’ goes to die.” But a federal judge on Thursday pushed back against that notion, blocking the State University System of Florida from enforcing through regulation a latest law that puts strict limits on what professors can teach or say about race within the classroom.
In a searing 139-page order, Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida forged as Orwellian the state’s defense of the Individual Freedom Act, also generally known as the “Stop WOKE” Act. The order is available in response to litigation from university professors and college students, who’ve argued that provisions of the law prohibiting the expression of certain viewpoints, akin to those related to sex and race, are unconstitutional. Defending the law, the State University System has argued that public university professors don’t have free speech rights in relation to what they teach. In his order, Walker took strong exception to that argument.
“Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ as long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves,” Walker wrote. “That is positively dystopian.”
Walker, who was nominated to the bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama, is thought for his rhetorical flourishes. Within the opening line of his order, granting partially a preliminary injunction to the plaintiffs, the federal judge quoted from George Orwell’s 1984. “‘It was a shiny cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,’” Walker wrote, “and the powers in control of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors within the name of ‘freedom.’”
Under the Individual Freedom Act, professors are prohibited from “training or instruction that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels … student[s] or worker[s] to imagine” eight specified concepts. Amongst others, those concepts include promoting a belief that “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Florida’s law is an element of a broader conservative pushback against “woke” liberalism and important race theory in colleges and schools. DeSantis, who’s widely expected to be a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, has made these issues central to his political identity. As governor, DeSantis is empowered to appoint most members of the state’s Board of Governors, the systemwide university governing body. Under the law, it falls to the board to ferret out unchecked “wokeness” and implement prohibitions against it. (Violations of the law could end in forfeiture of performance-based funding from the state.)
Walker’s order, nonetheless, enjoins the board from enforcing its regulation. Jerry C. Edwards, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who represented a few of the plaintiffs, said the order sent a robust signal to public colleges and the Legislature.
“We’re very completely happy with this ruling,” he said. “Judge Walker enjoined the Florida Board of Governors from with the ability to implement this law, which he called ‘positively dystopian.’ And we totally agree that it’s positively dystopian, violates the First Amendment, and is unconstitutionally vague under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
A spokeswoman for the Board of Governors said in an email that the board had “no comment, because it is our policy to not comment on pending litigation.”
That is a minimum of the second case this 12 months during which Walker has written a robust order related to First Amendment issues at public universities. In January he issued a blistering order against the University of Florida, saying it couldn’t implement a policy that had blocked university professors from participating in litigation against the state.
Walker’s order on Thursday took strong umbrage at what the judge characterised as a troubling notion that the state can ban speech it doesn’t like.
“Defendants respond that the First Amendment offers no protection here,” Walker wrote. “They argue that because university professors are public employees, they’re simply the State’s mouthpieces in university classrooms. In consequence, Defendants claim, the State has unfettered authority to limit what professors may say at school, even on the university level. In keeping with Defendants, as long as professors work for the State, they need to all read from the identical music.”
Edwards, the ACLU lawyer, said Walker’s two orders signal a judicial check on efforts to encroach on professors’ speech rights. “What this ruling and the opposite ruling says is that the State of Florida has not been good about protecting free-speech rights on college campuses and promoting free speech on college campuses, and that the courts aren’t having it,” Edwards said. “They’re pushing back and saying you could respect the First Amendment. You want to respect academic freedom.”