A professor, a student and an organization at the University of South Florida have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new state law that restricts the way race-related concepts can be taught in classrooms — a law Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act.”
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Tallahassee, is at least the fourth challenge to the law, which also includes restrictions on how race-related issues can be addressed in workplace training. A judge last month issued a preliminary injunction against the workplace-training part of the law.
In a 91-page complaint, lawyers for USF associate professor of history Adriana Novoa, student Samuel Rechek and the First Amendment Forum at University of South Florida raised a series of arguments that the law violates speech rights.
“At public universities and colleges, faculty members’ speech related to scholarship or teaching, or classroom speech related to matters of public concern, is protected by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit said. “Each of the concepts prohibited by the Stop WOKE Act addresses matters of public concern, regardless of whether some find those concepts uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive.”
The lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and Gainesville attorney Gary Edinger, seeks a ruling that the law is unconstitutional and an injunction.
“The speech rights of each of the plaintiffs has been chilled now and will be chilled in the future, as the Stop WOKE Act infringes on their First Amendment rights (and threatens Novoa’s livelihood) if they continue to engage in the kind of expression forbidden by the law,” the lawsuit said. “Unless the actions, policies, and practices of defendants are enjoined by this court, all of the plaintiffs will suffer the continuing loss of their constitutional rights.”
DeSantis made passage of the law a priority during this year’s legislative session and signed it in April. DeSantis called the measure the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act. It lists a series of race-related concepts and says it would constitute discrimination if students are subjected to instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels” them to believe the concepts.
As an example, the law labels instruction discriminatory if students are led to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”
As another example, the law seeks to prohibit instruction that would cause students to “feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”
When he signed the bill during a ceremony at a Hialeah Gardens charter school, DeSantis stood behind a placard that said “freedom from indoctrination.” The law took effect July 1.
“We believe an important component of freedom in the state of Florida is the freedom from having oppressive ideologies imposed upon you without your consent, whether it be in the classroom or whether it be in the workplace. And we decided to do something about it,” DeSantis said at the bill-signing ceremony.
The new lawsuit includes as defendants Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., the state university system’s Board of Governors and the USF Board of Trustees. It has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump.
In addition to arguing that the law violates the First Amendment, the lawsuit alleges violations of due-process rights and a state law known as the Campus Free Expression Act.
The complaint focuses extensively on how the law would affect Novoa, saying it would force her to remove assigned reading materials and revise lectures. It said the state’s “enactment, implementation and preparations to enforce the Stop WOKE Act have caused and, unless enjoined, will continue to cause irreparable harm to the constitutional rights of Professor Novoa.”
“Professor Novoa will also be forced to self-censor during debates amongst students, prohibiting her from engaging in the free exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of a successful debate,” the lawsuit said.
Two of the other challenges to the law, both filed in federal court in Tallahassee, focus on education. Meanwhile, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a preliminary injunction against the part of the law addressing workplace training, agreeing with three businesses and a consultant that restrictions violate the First Amendment.