Federal Judge Blocks Ron DeSantis’ ‘Positively Dystopian’ Stop WOKE Act

Declaring it a “positively dystopian” assault on free speech, a U.S. district judge blocked enforcement of provisions of a Florida law banning state university professors from expressing certain opinions on topics related racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination in their classes on Thursday.

The decision means that the leadership of Florida’s state university system cannot punish professors or instructors for violating the prohibition on the expression of eight viewpoints enacted by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and state legislative Republicans under the Individual Freedom Act of 2022.

In a blistering opinion that opens by quoting George Orwell’s classic anti-totalitarian novel “1984,” Judge Mark Walker, appointed by President Barack Obama, ruled that the law violated the First Amendment right of freedom of speech of both professors and students and the Fourteenth Amendment by being unconstitutionally vague.

“In this case, the State of Florida lays the cornerstone of its own Ministry of Truth under the guise of the Individual Freedom Act, declaring which viewpoints shall be orthodox and which shall be verboten in its university classrooms,” Walker wrote.

“[T]he First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark,” Walker concluded.

The case focused on the law’s prohibition on the expression of eight different viewpoints related to race, sex, gender and sexual orientation by state university professors. The law, originally introduced by DeSantis as the Stop WOKE Act, was enacted as part of the governor’s culture war political agenda seeking to bend institutions from state universities, government bureaucracies and in-state corporations to the will of Republican politicians.

The enactment of policies like the Individual Freedom Act stems from a position espoused by the illiberal faction known as National Conservatives, whom DeSantis has linked himself to as he approaches the national political stage, that conservatives must first prioritize crushing liberal control of cultural resources like schools, universities and the entertainment industry, among other things.

Calling it "positively dystopian," a judge struck down the higher education provisions of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' Individual Freedom Act, also dubbed the Stop WOKE Act bill, on Nov. 17.
Calling it “positively dystopian,” a judge struck down the higher education provisions of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Individual Freedom Act, also dubbed the Stop WOKE Act bill, on Nov. 17.

Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

One thing standing in their way, as exemplified by Thursday’s decision against the Individual Freedom Act, is the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

In the joint cases of Pernell et. al. v. Florida Board of Governors of the State University System et. al. and Adriana Novoa et. al. v. Manny Diaz, Jr. et. al., a group of state university professors and students filed suit against the board governing the state university system and Diaz, the state education commissioner. The professors argued that they would be forced to self-censor or face punishment up to termination if they were required to abide by the law’s prohibitions on disfavored speech. Two state university students argued that these viewpoint prohibitions violated their First Amendment right to hear their professor’s speech.

While noting that the court’s precedents do allow the state to set educational curriculum, Walker explained that there is no precedent for the State of Florida’s assertion that the state “has an unfettered right to prohibit professors from expressing viewpoints with which it disagrees.”

“Defendants essentially ask this Court to engage in ‘judicial activism,’ since accepting Defendants’ argument would require this Court to substitute binding precedent with Defendants’ policy preference,” Walker wrote in a footnote.

That policy preference would be that “the First Amendment does not protect professors’ in-class speech.”

In ruling in favor of the professors, save for one, and one of the two students, Walker stated that the state had violated their First Amendment rights by imposing unconstitutional viewpoint- and content-based restrictions on their speech.

Just by declaring the eight viewpoints banned by the law to be “repugnant,” the state cannot “do an end-run around the First Amendment … to avoid indoctrination,” in order to “impose its own orthodoxy and can indoctrinate university students to its preferred viewpoint.”

“The IFA is antithetical to academic freedom and has cast a leaden pall of orthodoxy over Florida’s state universities,” Walker wrote. “Neither the State of Florida’s authority to regulate public school curriculum, nor its interest in preventing race or sex discrimination can support its weight. Nor does the First Amendment tolerate it.”

In an August decision, Walker blocked enforcement of the law’s provisions banning private companies from hosting certain discrimination-related trainings.

Enforcement of the law’s higher education provisions are now temporarily suspended pending further appeal. The state is expected to appeal the district court decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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