(Bloomberg) -- Florida’s new law restricting how matters of race and gender can be taught in state universities was partially put on hold by a federal judge who opened his decision with a quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
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The law, championed by Governor Ron DeSantis as a way to “fight back against woke indoctrination,” likely violates the First Amendment and is “positively dystopian,” Chief US District Judge Mark E. Walker said in a ruling Thursday, granting a preliminary injunction sought by rights groups and academics.
The ruling bars the Florida Board of Governors of the State University System from enforcing much of the law while the case proceeds. Walker said the order was justified because the law could cause “irreparable injury” to professors who are likely to win the case.
“One thing is crystal clear -- both robust intellectual inquiry and democracy require light to thrive,” said Walker, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama. “Our professors are critical to a healthy democracy, and the State of Florida’s decision to choose which viewpoints are worthy of illumination and which must remain in the shadows has implications for us all.”
A lawyer for the Board of Governors didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Lawyers for the state argued in court filings that the law was needed to prevent liberal professors from “endorsing the proposition that members of one race are morally superior to members of another, that individuals are inherently racist solely by virtue of their race, or that a person’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race.”
The state argued in court papers that the First Amendment didn’t apply because the Florida government “has simply chosen to regulate its own speech -- the curriculum used in state universities and the in-class instruction offered by state employees.”
The bill was signed into law in April by the governor, as DeSantis was positioning himself as the Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump.
In practice, the law restricts instruction about racial power dynamics in the US, the history of slavery and discrimination, and any meaningful discussion of affirmative action, according to the complaint, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The law “is racially motivated censorship” passed by lawmakers “to stifle widespread demands to discuss, study, and address systemic inequalities” following the murder of George Floyd,” the plaintiffs claim.
Walker’s ruling heaped praise on the role academics play in society.
“If our ‘priests of democracy’ are not allowed to shed light on challenging ideas, then democracy will die in darkness,” the judge said. “The 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.”
The case is Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors of the State University System, 4:22-cv-304, US District Court, Northern District of Florida (Tallahassee).
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