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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media in Miami

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media in Miami on April 8, 2021. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Bad Day for DeSantis as 'Stop WOKE Act' Hit With Injunction, Lawsuit

"If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case," a federal judge wrote in blocking part of the controversial law. "But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents."

Brett Wilkins

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Stop WOKE Act suffered a two-punch blow Thursday as a federal judge blocked parts of the controversial law and a coalition of civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit against what they are calling "racially motivated censorship."

"Under our constitutional scheme, the remedy for repugnant speech is more speech, not enforced silence."

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, issued a preliminary injunction against portions of the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, also called the Individual Freedom Act, saying it violates First Amendment free speech protections and the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause.

The Stop WOKE Act—sometimes also referred to as the Individual Freedom Act and the "white discomfort law"—prohibits classroom discussions or corporate training that make students or workers feel uneasy about their race. The legislation is widely viewed by progressives as part of the GOP-led war on critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework for understanding systemic racism in the United States.

"Florida's legislators may well find plaintiffs' speech repugnant. But under our constitutional scheme, the remedy for repugnant speech is more speech, not enforced silence," wrote Walker.

"If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case," the judge added. "But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents."

Walker's ruling forayed into pop culture Zeitgeist:

In the popular television series "Stranger Things," the "upside down" describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world... Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment "upside down." Normally, the First Amendment bars the state from burdening speech, while private actors may burden speech freely. But in Florida, the First Amendment apparently bars private actors from burdening speech, while the state may burden speech freely... Now, like the heroine in "Stranger Things," this court is once again asked to pull Florida back from the "upside down."

Rights groups hailed the decision, with Protect Democracy tweeting that "the Stop WOKE Act is a speech code that takes a page from the authoritarian playbook" and "seeks to censor ideas that challenge government officials' preferred narrative, muzzle independent institutions, and direct outrage toward disfavored groups."

Also on Thursday, the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, Legal Defense Fund, and the law firm Ballard Spahr filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Florida professors, ​alleging the Stop WOKE Act violates the First and 14th amendments.

The suit calls the law "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."

"Not only does the law prohibit instructors from teaching the Legislature's disfavored viewpoints in the manner dictated by their disciplines, but its vague terms generate uncertainty about when and how the law will apply, thus creating an even greater chilling effect on academic expression," the complaint states.

"The Stop WOKE Act is a speech code that takes a page from the authoritarian playbook."

The ACLU tweeted that "the First Amendment protects the right to learn for educators and students. The Stop WOKE Act deprives classrooms of important learning tools and conversations to challenge racism and sexism and discriminates against Black educators and students."

"We have a right to teach and learn free from state censorship and discrimination," the group added.

Thursday's ruling and lawsuit come two weeks after DeSantis suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren after he vowed not to prosecute people who violate Florida's 15-week abortion ban or restrictions on gender-affirming healthcare.

In announcing the suspension—which Warren challenged in federal court on Wednesday as a violation of his First Amendment rights—DeSantis referred to the state attorney as "woke."

In a Wednesday appearance on CNN, Warren explained that "we're fighting back to make sure that even though Ron DeSantis is governor, the First Amendment still has meaning. The Florida Constitution has meaning and elections still have meaning."

DeSantis has been called a hypocrite for touting Florida as a haven for freedom while signing laws that restrict reproductive, educational, and other liberties, including the right to protest.

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