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Federal judge blocks part of 'Stop WOKE Act' law

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question at a news conference at the Urban League of Broward County, during the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, April 17, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Lynne Sladky
AP Photo
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question at a news conference at the Urban League of Broward County, during the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, April 17, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Calling part of the law a “naked viewpoint-based regulation on speech,” a federal judge Thursday blocked restrictions that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers placed on addressing race-related issues in workplace training.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, in a 44-page ruling, issued a preliminary injunction against part of the controversial new law, which DeSantis dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act.” Walker agreed with three businesses and a consultant that restrictions in the law violate the First Amendment.

“If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case,” Walker wrote. “But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents. Because, without justification, the (law) attacks ideas, not conduct, Plaintiffs are substantially likely to succeed on the merits of this lawsuit.”

The ruling came on the same day that a group of university professors and a university student filed a federal lawsuit challenging another part of the law restricting how race-related concepts are addressed in education. Another education-related challenge also is pending in federal court.

The law (HB 7), which DeSantis signed April 22, spurred fierce debates before passing during this year’s legislative session. DeSantis called it the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act.

The employment-related part of the law lists eight race-related concepts and says that a required training program or other activity that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such individual (an employee) to believe any of the following concepts constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin.”

As an example of the concepts, the law targets compelling employees to believe that an “individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”

Attorneys for the businesses filed their lawsuit June 22 and subsequently requested a preliminary injunction, saying the law violates the ability to discuss issues such as racism and implicit bias with employees.

The plaintiffs in the case are Primo Tampa, LLC, a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream franchisee; Honeyfund.com, Inc., a Clearwater-based technology company that provides wedding registries; and Chevara Orrin and her company, Collective Concepts, LLC. Orrin and her company provide consulting and training to employers about issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion.

After Walker granted the preliminary injunction, officials from the businesses issued statements about the need for diversity training and addressing issues such as systemic racism.

“Diversity in the workplace is demonstrably good for business, so we need to be able to educate employees about the threats to diversity,” Honeyfund.com, Inc. CEO Sara Margulis said.in a statement. “Diversity trainings often address concepts like systemic racism, unconscious bias and privilege. I am thankful that the court’s order will enable Honeyfund to bring diversity training on these topics to all of our employees.”

In court filings, attorneys for the state disputed that the law violates First Amendment rights, saying it only bars businesses from requiring employees to take part in training programs that use the targeted concepts.

“They (the law’s restrictions) leave employers free to engage in, promote and pay for any speech they wish, including the invidiously biased speech targeted by the act, and they leave willing employees free to hear and to join in it,” the state’s lawyers wrote last month. “All they prevent is the use of the employer’s coercive economic leverage over its employees to make them an offer they can’t refuse: Listen to the company’s speech or clear out your desk.”

But Walker, who also turned down a state motion to dismiss the case Thursday, rejected the arguments by the state’s lawyers.

“It (the law) targets speech — endorsing any of eight concepts — and only incidentally burdens conduct,” Walker wrote. “Even the slightest endorsement of any of the eight concepts at any required employment activity violates the statute; the (law) requires no evidence that the statement be even subjectively offensive. Nor does the (law) require that the statement create a severely or pervasively hostile work environment.”

In the separate lawsuit filed Thursday, the university professors and the student argued the law constitutes “racially motivated” censorship. The 92-page lawsuit, also filed in the Northern District of Florida, focuses on the measure’s impacts on universities.

“The Stop WOKE Act is racially motivated censorship that the Florida Legislature enacted, in significant part, to stifle widespread demands to discuss, study, and address systemic inequalities, following the nationwide protests that provoked discussions about race and racism in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd,” the lawsuit said, referring to the 2020 murder of a Black man in Minneapolis that touched off nationwide protests.

The plaintiffs, alleging that the law violates the First Amendment and is unconstitutionally vague, are seeking a preliminary injunction.

Morenike Fajana, an attorney with the Legal Defense Fund, which is helping represent the plaintiffs, pointed to the Stop WOKE label to support part of the lawsuit involving an intentional discrimination claim.

“We’re alleging that, given the Stop WOKE Act’s specific history, how it moved through the Legislature, statements of the bill sponsors and also Gov. DeSantis, even down to its name — it’s literally stopping wokeness — show that the law is a direct reaction to the wave of racial justice speech, protests and initiatives that we saw since 2020,” Fajana said.

The student plaintiff, Johana Dauphin, is enrolled in two courses at Florida State University — Race and Minority Relations and Religion, Race, and Ethnicity. Dauphin, who is Black, fears that the courses “will be negatively affected by the Stop WOKE Act,” according to the lawsuit.

“She believes that the Stop WOKE Act will result in the denial of her ability to receive information and instruction, particularly regarding race, racial disparities, and structural inequities, that will stymie her educational enrichment and post-graduate future, and minimize and/or ignore her lived experience as a Black woman,” the complaint said.