A judge blocks Florida’s race-related trial law, calling it ‘positively dystopian’

Calling the state’s approach “positively dystopian,” a federal judge on Thursday blocked a law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that restricts how race-related concepts can be taught at universities.

The law is “antithetical to academic freedom and has cast a heavy pall over the orthodoxy of Florida state universities,” U.S. District Chief Judge Mark Walker wrote in the 139-page ruling.

“Neither the State of Florida’s authority to regulate public school curricula nor its interest in preventing racial or sexual discrimination can support its weight. The First Amendment does not condone it either, he added.

DeSantis’ administration quickly said it would appeal the decision.

The law, which DeSantis has dubbed the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act” or “Stop WOKE Act,” lists a series of race-related concepts and says it would constitute discrimination if students were subjected to instruction that “ espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels them” to believe the concepts. The Republican-controlled legislature passed the law this year.

Faculty members who violate the law, which has sparked several legal challenges, could be fired, and a “justified violation” of restrictions would make schools ineligible for so-called performance funding.

Walker’s decision, which granted a preliminary injunction against the law, came in two lawsuits brought by professors and students at several state universities. The plaintiffs argued that the restrictions confuse instructors, chill speech inside classrooms, and constitute an unconstitutional violation of teachers’ First Amendment rights.

“After weighing the context, the asserted state interest, and the strong predilection for academic freedom in the context of these cases, this court finds that the State of Florida, as an employer and educator, cannot prevent university employees from expressing an adverse point of view on an issue within the established curriculum while teaching on that curriculum,” Walker wrote, adding that “such point of view discrimination” is poison to a free society.”

But DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said in a statement that the administration expects to “ultimately prevail in this litigation.”

“We strongly disagree with Judge Walker’s preliminary injunction orders on Stop WOKE enforcement and will continue to fight to prevent Florida students and employees from being subjected to discriminatory classroom instruction. or mandatory discriminatory workplace training,” Griffin said in the statement. “The Stop WOKE Act protects the open exchange of ideas by prohibiting teachers or employers who exercise authority over others from imposing discriminatory concepts on students as part of classroom instruction or on employees as a condition of job retention. An “open-minded and critical” environment requires one to be free from discrimination.”

But the plaintiffs and their lawyers welcomed Walker’s decision.

“I hope the courts will uphold the existence of a public education that cannot be manipulated by politicians to push an ideology, now and in the future,” said Adriana Novoa, a history professor at the University. of South Florida and plaintiff. statement.

Campuses “are spaces for debate, not dogma,” said Greg H. Greubel, an attorney with the free speech advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights that represents some of the plaintiffs, in a prepared statement.

“Americans recognize that the government cannot be an all-powerful force authorized to control every word spoken by a teacher in the classroom. Today’s ruling is an important first step in ensuring that teachers’ First Amendment rights are respected by the State of Florida,” he said.

Lawyers for the Board of Governors of the State University System and other education officials who are charged in the case have argued that the government has the power to restrict public employees’ free speech.

Walker conceded that the state “is given more flexibility to limit the speech of public employees” than the speech of private individuals.

“Nevertheless, such limitations must be both reasonable and supported by evidence of a sufficiently substantial interest to override the employee’s right to speak,” the judge wrote, adding that the statute’s restrictions are not ” certainly not reasonable”.

Giving the state such control would have disastrous consequences, Walker wrote.

“Striking at the heart of ‘open-mindedness and critical inquiry,’ the state of Florida has taken control of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to suppress disadvantaged viewpoints and limit where professors can illuminate eight specific ideas. And defendants’ argument allows the state of Florida to place no restrictions on the power to extend its viewpoint limitation to any idea it chooses,” he added.

During closing arguments last month, Charles Cooper, a state attorney, told Walker that the concepts targeted in the law, officially called the “Personal Liberty Act,” are “racially discriminatory and repugnant.”

“We’re not going to allow ‘these concepts to be adopted by instructors’ in our classrooms, at our pace … by taking our paychecks,” Cooper said Oct. 13.

Walker made several references to author George Orwell in Thursday’s ruling, using a quote from “1984” to open his opinion.

“‘It was a cold, bright day in April, and the clocks struck thirteen,’ and the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system said the state had absolute power to muzzle its professors in the name of the” freedom,” Walker wrote.

The state “lays the cornerstone of its own Ministry of Truth under the guise of the Individual Liberty Act, declaring which views are to be orthodox and which are to be verboten in its college classrooms,” it said. he also wrote.

The law, for example, would consider teaching to be discriminatory if it “forces” students to believe that they “must feel guilt, anxiety, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no role”, committed in the past. by members of the same race or sex.

But Walker warned that “robust intellectual inquiry and democracy need light to thrive”.

“Our teachers are essential to a healthy democracy, and the State of Florida’s decision to choose which viewpoints are worth illuminating and which should remain in the shadows has implications for all of us,” Walker wrote. “If our ‘priests of democracy’ are not allowed to shed light on difficult ideas, then democracy will die in darkness. But the First Amendment does not allow the state of Florida to muzzle its college professors, impose its own orthodoxy of views, and throw us all in the dark.

Walker’s decision came two months after he issued an injunction in a separate lawsuit challenging part of the law that imposes restrictions on how race-related issues can be addressed in workforce training . DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody asked the 11th United States Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, to overturn the injunction.

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