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TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE Act” is facing its first federal court test after weeks of being celebrated by the political right for restricting race-based teaching and training in schools, universities and workplaces.
But not all conservatives are lined up behind the Republican governor.
A civil liberties organization, which has sided with Florida Republicans in the past on campus speech issues, is among those now condemning DeSantis’ approach.
“It’s intended to chill speech,” said Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). “The entire point of the new law is to set out certain categories or concepts that the state disdains and says you can’t introduce.”
Much of the debate over “Stop WOKE” has centered on public schools and businesses.
But the law may be the most significant among several measures DeSantis signed that put his imprint on higher education in Florida, not only restricting speech but also adding new limits on tenure for Florida professors and changes to how public colleges and universities are accredited.
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Draft legislation shaped by the governor’s office also suggests that DeSantis may want even more control over faculty hiring at colleges and universities if he wins reelection in November, heightening anxiety in Florida and across the nation’s higher ed community.
“People in hiring positions are telling us they’re hearing from professors in other states who question, ‘What’s the political environment like on your campus?’” said Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing 25,000 members across the state.
“They’re wondering if government is going to keep them from doing their jobs or research. Clearly, based on these kinds of questions, there’s a narrative and concerns about working in Florida,” Gothard said.
While Stop Woke may be the latest battleground, the nonprofit FIRE has fought restrictions on campus speech in Florida before. But then it was with the support of conservatives.
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Conservatives once hailed free speech
FIRE, which receives funding from several conservative foundations, supported a 2018 law signed by then-Republican Gov. Rick Scott intended to eliminate “free speech zones” on Florida campuses, a move hailed by conservative lawmakers who felt these zones were being used to quarantine right-leaning speakers.
That measure gained added focus because it was seen as opening more campuses to the political right. It emerged shortly after protests rocked the University of Florida ahead of a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, a leader of 2017’s neo-Nazi torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Va.
FIRE, though, has broken with Florida Republicans over “Stop WOKE” because, Steinbaugh said, it hammers speech suppression into Florida law.
“For conservatives who think this is a good idea and that maybe these topics or concepts should be verboten in higher education, I’d say, consider what a legislature in a left-leaning state might do with the authority to say which subjects are true or false, or can or can’t be discussed,” Steinbaugh said. “It’s a Pandora’s box that you don’t want to open.”
FIRE is asking Florida universities to narrowly interpret the new law, set to take effect July 1. It also has reached out to faculty members possibly ahead of a lawsuit if educators feel their ability to discuss areas of expertise is limited by the new speech restrictions.
Lawsuit pinned to First Amendment
But a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the measure is already slated for its first hearing Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee. The challenge was filed by the Jacksonville firm of Sheppard, White, Kachergus, DeMaggio & Wilkison, known for its civil rights work.
Plaintiffs include a pair of high school teachers, a professor at the University of Central Florida, and a soon-to-be kindergartner from Nassau County. They’re asking Walker to stop the law from going into effect. FIRE is not among the plaintiffs.
Along with violating free speech rights guaranteed under the U.S. constitution, the lawsuit claims the Stop Woke law gives the state power to “arbitrarily decide what speech is prohibited and what speech is permitted.”
“As such, plaintiffs have every reason to believe that these vague standards can and will be used to silence speech on these topics with which Florida’s GOP politicians disagree,” the lawsuit said.
Attorneys for DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody have countered by arguing that First Amendment issues are not at play. Instead, “public school curriculum set by elected officials is government speech,” that earlier court decisions have said can be regulated.
“The in-class instruction offered by state-employed educators is also pure government speech, not the speech of the educators themselves,” the state argues in defending the law.
What ‘Stop WOKE’ restricts
“Stop WOKE” was approved in March, mostly along party-lines in the Republican-led Legislature. It prohibits any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin.
It also blocks businesses from using diversity practices or training that could make employees feel guilty for similar reasons. Anyone offended could sue an institution or individual, arguing their civil rights were violated by being made subject to such instruction.
Universities also could lose state funding.
Speaking at a charter school in Hialeah Gardens when he signed the law in April, DeSantis condemned “pernicious ideologies” like critical race theory, which examines the role racial discrimination has played in shaping American history and modern society.
He also blistered the media, “elites,” “leftists” and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia.
While the measure earned its nickname when DeSantis termed it the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act,” the Legislature settled on a simpler title, calling it the “Individual Freedom Act.”
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DeSantis picks his targets
DeSantis, though, embraced the attack on “woke,” which found its place in his policy agenda that included a move to strip Disney World of its special tax district because of its parent company’s opposition to another priority of the governor, the parental rights legislation opponents branded “Don’t Say Gay.”
“In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces,” DeSantis said. “There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.”
DeSantis clearly views higher education as a big target for change.
United Faculty of Florida has already sued the governor over “intellectual freedom” surveys being distributed to faculty, students and employees at colleges and universities that the union sees aimed at stifling open discussions on campuses.
The annual surveys, approved under a law last year, are to be analyzed by university and college leaders in a report scheduled to be released in September.
This year, DeSantis signed new legislation that could make it more difficult for faculty to retain tenure, which has been a standard at universities since the 1940s. Tenure was enacted to blunt political interference and give faculty freedom to discuss and research controversial topics without fear of dismissal.
But DeSantis has condemned what he termed “lifetime appointments” for professors, adding he wants to “make sure the faculty are held accountable.”
Critics say political payback at play
The law also requires universities to periodically change accreditation agencies every five to 10 years.
That provision was viewed by critics as retaliation by DeSantis after the current agency used by most schools criticized the University of Florida for attempting to deny two professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit.
The agency also cautioned Florida State University during its presidential search when the governor’s former Education Commissioner, Richard Corcoran, was an applicant.
Yet even with these changes, DeSantis appears to want more.
A 70-page proposal drafted by Republican lawmakers at the governor’s request and obtained by the news site, Seeking Rents, outlined plans for giving university boards of trustees – heavily influenced by DeSantis – faculty-hiring authority, taking it away from school presidents.
Similarly, the proposal would give the university system’s Board of Governors, whose members are mostly governor appointees, power to investigate university presidents, fire employees, review existing degree programs and veto budgets.
The measure never made it past the concept stage. But many think it shows what may be in store for colleges and universities in a DeSantis second term.
“We’re at a tipping point right now,” said Gothard of United Faculty. “We have a Legislature and a governor who are taking their time to attack groups and individuals who disagree with their political ideology.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: What is the ‘Stop WOKE Act’? Florida law raises First Amendment issues