Florida’s Stop WOKE Act in limbo amid federal court battle
TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The ongoing legal battle over Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, more formally titled the Individual Freedom Act, has moved up the chain of federal courts. In November, a federal judge blocked the law from taking effect on First Amendment, academic freedom grounds, but Florida appealed and requested a stay of the injunction.
If Florida is successful in convincing the courts, the Stop WOKE Act would remain in effect while the legal battle plays out.
On the other side of the court fight, Professor Adriana Novoa from the University of South Florida and co-plaintiff Sam Rechek, a USF student, are fighting to keep the law out of colleges in Florida.
The two filed to block the law alongside the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression to keep the preliminary injunction in place.
In their court briefings, Novoa and Rechek argued that the bill stifles academic freedom and is “in flagrant disregard” of free speech protections enshrined by the First Amendment. The legal battle began in September. Novoa and Rechek are represented by FIRE in court.
As previously reported, the Stop WOKE Act is a ban on the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Florida’s schools. The law in question applies to, as written, all public institutions in Florida. This includes K-12 schools and public colleges and universities.
Novoa and Rechek’s lawsuit contests the application of the law on college campuses. In November’s court order, Chief US District Judge Mark Walker wrote that the law was a blow “at the heart of ‘open-mindedness and critical inquiry'” and that the State of Florida had “taken over the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to suppress disfavored viewpoints.”
Florida officials disagreed, appealing to a higher court. Their appeal moved the case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta, Ga. In their request that the stay be applied, and allow the law to be in effect, attorneys argued that the public interest of ending discrimination was the reason for allowing the law.
“The balance of the equities and the public interest weigh decisively in favor of staying the district court’s order preliminarily enjoining the Act. As shown above, the State has a compelling interest in ending discrimination based on race and other immutable characteristics,” attorneys for the defendants wrote. “Enjoining the Act will sanction curricular speech that Florida has determined, in the exercise of its sovereign judgment, is invidiously discriminatory and contrary to the State’s most cherished ideals.”
Under their interpretation of the law’s purpose, Florida’s attorneys said the law prevents discrimination by not allowing university instructors to endorse ideas prohibited by the law, rather than outright banning their discussion.
In response to the appeal by Florida officials, FIRE filed in court that the Department of Education, and other defendants, have yet to identify a harm that not enforcing the law would create.
“After the federal district court ordered the state to halt enforcement of the higher education provisions of the Stop WOKE Act, Florida filed an appeal. Florida has also asked the court of appeals to allow the state to resume enforcement of the law while the court considers the appeal,” Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney for FIRE, said in a statement to WFLA.com. “The Stop WOKE Act remains unenforceable in college classrooms and it should stay that way. Florida needs to stop trying to censor debate on college campuses.”
The plaintiffs also said allowing the law to be implemented would harm their free speech and academic freedom rights, describing the Stop WOKE Act as viewpoint discrimination.
In a supplemental brief supporting Novoa and Rechek’s lawsuit, the ACLU said allowing the Stop WOKE Act to remain in effect while the court battle continues would impact the quality of education at Florida colleges and universities.
“The Stop WOKE Act chills Instructors’ ability to share their expertise with students without fear of reprisal, because the Act prohibits instruction that “espouses” certain viewpoints the State dislikes,” the ACLU wrote to the court. “For example, under the State’s own reading of the Act, an instructor would violate the Act if they hosted guest speakers to debate for and against race-conscious admissions—only the anti-affirmative action viewpoint is permitted.”
In response to the request for comment, the governor’s office provided the following statement.
“We will continue to defend the laws of the state of Florida, as duly enacted by the state legislature and signed by the governor, with the best and most fervent legal defense possible,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office said.