I won't let Florida's 'Stop WOKE Act' silence discussions on race in my classroom

·4 min read

At the same moment that college and university instructors in Florida were grading our students’ final exams, members of the Florida Legislature launched their latest attack on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by passing House Bill 7, the “Stop WOKE Act.”

The stated aim of this measure is to suppress what Ron DeSantis calls “corporate wokeness” as well as to silence discussions on race in a wide variety of settings. I am going to focus primarily on the impact of HB 7 on higher education in Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed for House Bill 7, also known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” which puts restrictions on discussions about race and gender in Florida classrooms.
Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed for House Bill 7, also known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” which puts restrictions on discussions about race and gender in Florida classrooms.

The mechanism for deciding that an instructor is violating HB 7 is completely subjective. The new law creates a mishmash of state-imposed speech codes that will harm academic achievement in Florida. By stifling the marketplace of ideas, the Stop WOKE Act will hamper the ability of our students to compete with their peers across the country for job placements and post-graduate professional programs.

Gov. DeSantis’s announcement upon signing HB 7 that, “No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race,” may be well-intentioned. However, by injecting the concept of “feelings” into the new law he violates a vital premise of generations of conservative thought that it is not the place of government to legislate feelings or morality.

What happens if one student in a class of 60 “feels bad” during a discussion of slavery or the genocide of European Jews during World War II? Instead of engaging in tough but fruitful dialogs that lead to new understandings, will students be tempted to just “opt out” due to the new law?

Will the state proceed to pass additional speech restriction laws about other topics that generate spirited debate such as global climate change, women’s reproductive freedom and voting rights? The endgame appears to be a society where following Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous dictum to “go upright and vital and speak the rude truth in all ways” is punished by the state.

As a veteran of U.S. Special Forces who has served in countries that lacked traditions of freedom of expression, the Stop WOKE Act is an alarming development. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that HB 7 is an attempt by an increasingly authoritarian state government to impede the free flow of ideas that some may find detrimental to the status quo.

This is being done in the name of scoring political points with those who do not want the citizenry to discuss controversial subjects such as inequality, the history of segregation or the many ways that Tallahassee has tried to stifle the First Amendment from the beginning of our state’s history to present.

Thousands of different courses are taught every semester on a multitude of subjects at the University of Florida. With this topical diversity, these classes share one thing in common. Faculty choose readings, experiments and discussion topics based on the most prestigious scholarship in their respective fields, not on how we think the material is going to make our students feel.

The secret behind UF’s rise to top-five status is this. Our students are exposed to learning environments that are as rigorous as found at Harvard, Yale or any top university in the world. This academic rigor in turn allows our students and alumni to fulfill their career goals and their intellectual aspirations.

I am not going to allow HB 7 to stop me from offering my students the most challenging scholarship on the Holocaust, eugenics, racism and related fields. The Stop WOKE Act will have zero impact on my research, public speaking or on my class lesson plans.

In the fall semester, I am teaching my “African Diaspora in the Americas” class, a course I have taught since I was an assistant professor. I invite Gov. DeSantis to audit or to visit my class anytime he is back in Florida. One caveat: The class requires a ton of reading, Mr. Governor!

Gov. DeSantis needs to get his priorities in order. Instead of trying to stop Floridians from learning about Critical Race Theory — which is taught in the finest universities in the land — the governor needs to worry about the deadly impacts of Great Replacement Theory, an ideology that has ruined lives, promoted hatred and led directly to mass murder. Challenging Replacement Theory means having exactly the kinds of discussions that the governor seems determined to squelch.  

Paul Ortiz is a PEN-award winning author and a professor of history at the University of Florida.

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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Paul Ortiz: Stop WOKE Act meant to silence discussions on race