DeSantis waves to a CPAC audience under a videoscreen reading "Awake not woke"

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 24, 2022 in Orlando, Florida.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Federal Court Blocks Workplace DEI Training Ban in DeSantis' 'Stop Woke' Law

One Democratic Florida lawmaker called the unanimous ruling "another win for the First Amendment and another loss for DeSantis."

A federal appellate panel on Monday upheld a lower court's blockage of a key provision in Florida's law prohibiting employers from requiring workers to attend diversity, equity, and inclusion and other training that Republican lawmakers and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis deride as "woke."

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said the workplace training provisions of the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act—euphemistically rebranded by supporters as the Individual Freedom Act—violate the First Amendment.

"This is not the first era in which Americans have held widely divergent views on important areas of morality, ethics, law, and public policy," the panel's 22-page opinion states. "And it is not the first time that these disagreements have seemed so important, and their airing so dangerous, that something had to be done. But now, as before, the First Amendment keeps the government from putting its thumb on the scale."

Monday's ruling affirmed an August 2022 preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who found the Stop WOKE Act violates First Amendment free speech protections and the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause.

Decried by some critics as the "white discomfort law," the legislation—which was signed by DeSantis in April 2022—outlawed classroom discussion or corporate training that makes students or workers feel uneasy about their race.

"By limiting its restrictions to a list of ideas designated as offensive, the act targets speech based on its content," Judge Britt C. Grant, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said in Monday's ruling. "And by barring only speech that endorses any of those ideas, it penalizes certain viewpoints—the greatest First Amendment sin."

Plaintiffs in the case and one of their lawyers joined free speech advocates in welcoming the decision.

"The government obviously has no right to patrol my workplace for words that some politicians don't like," Antonio McBroom, CEO of Primo Tampa, said in a statement. "And the government obviously has no right to substitute its preferences for those of any businesses' guests and team members."

Shalini Goel Agarwal, an attorney for Protect Democracy, which represented case plaintiffs, asserted that "speech codes have no place in American society, and elected officials have no business censoring the speech of business owners simply because they don't agree with what's being expressed."

"Barring employers from engaging in speech that powerful politicians don't like is a move straight out of the authoritarian playbook," the lawyer added.

The Stop WOKE Act is a key law in DeSantis' "war on woke" crusade that includes attacks on K-12 and higher education, protest rights, and the LGBTQ+ community. A lawsuit challenging the Stop WOKE Act's race-based higher education restrictions is currently proceeding in federal court.

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