'If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case,' wrote U.S. District Judge Mark Walker. 'But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents.'
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A Florida judge on Thursday declared a Florida law championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that restricts race-based conversation and analysis in business and education unconstitutional.
Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said in a 44-page ruling that the "Stop WOKE" act violates the First Amendment and is impermissibly vague. Walker also refused to issue a stay that would keep the law in effect during any appeal by the state.
The law targets what DeSantis has called a "pernicious" ideology exemplified by critical race theory — the idea that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions that serve to perpetuate white dominance in society.
Walker said the law, as applied to diversity, inclusion and bias training in businesses, turns the First Amendment "upside down" because the state is barring speech by prohibiting discussion of certain concepts in training programs.
"If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case," the judge wrote. "But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents."
The governor's office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. DeSantis has repeatedly said any losses at the lower court level on his priorities are likely to be reversed by appeals courts that are generally more conservative.
The law prohibits teaching or business practices that contend members of one ethnic group are inherently racist and should feel guilt for past actions committed by others. It also bars the notion that a person's status as privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by their race or gender, or that discrimination is acceptable to achieve diversity.
The ruling Thursday came in one of three lawsuits challenging the Stop Woke act. It was filed by private entities, Clearwater-based Honeyfund.com and others, claiming their free speech rights are curtailed because the law infringes on company training programs stressing diversity, inclusion, elimination of bias and prevention of workplace harassment. Companies with 15 or more employees could face civil lawsuits over such practices.
That lawsuit says Honeyfund — which provides wedding registries — seeks to protect the rights of private employers to "engage in open and free exchange of information with employees to identify and begin to address discrimination and harm" in their organizations.
"Diversity in the workplace is good for business," Honeyfund CEO Sara Margulis said on Twitter after the ruling. "Diversity training often addresses concepts like systemic racism, unconscious bias, and privilege. This is why @Honeyfund challenged this illegal restriction on free speech."
Another lawsuit, which was filed Thursday by college professors and students, claims the law amounts to "racially motivated censorship" that will act to "stifle widespread demands to discuss, study and address systemic inequalities" underscored by the national discussion of race after the killing of George Floyd, who was Black, by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
"In place of free and open academic inquiry and debate, instructors fear discussing topics of oppression, privilege, and race and gender inequalities with which the Legislature disagrees," the lawsuit says. "As a result, students are either denied access to knowledge altogether or instructors are forced to present incomplete or inaccurate information that is steered toward the Legislature's own views."
Conservatives see critical race theory less as academic inquiry into truth and history and more as the imposition of a divisive ideology stemming from Marxism that assigns people into the categories of oppressor and oppressed based on their race.
Like the professors, a group of K-12 teachers and a student claim in a third pending lawsuit that the law violates the Constitution's protections of free expression, academic freedom and access to information in public schools.
"The Stop WOKE Act aims to forward the government's preferred narrative of history and society and to render illegal speech that challenges that narrative," the lawsuit says.
DeSantis is running for reelection as governor this year and is widely viewed as a contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. He has made cultural issues a cornerstone of his administration, particularly snuffing out what he calls "woke" entities and philosophies centered on issues of discrimination involving race, gender and sexual orientation.
"What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions, and I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism," DeSantis said in a December 2021 speech. "They really want to tear at the fabric of our society."
Another example of this is DeSantis' effort to punish Walt Disney World for the company's opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law, labeled by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" law because it limits gender orientation instruction in early grades and chills discussion of the issue overall in schools.
The governor pushed the Legislature to end Disney World's special independent district that essentially enabled it to run its own private government. That law doesn't take full effect until June 2023 but has already been challenged in court.
Other lawsuits have challenged DeSantis priorities such as a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, a measure to fine tech companies if they "de-platform" political candidates over their viewpoints, an "anti-riot" law enacting new felonies after Black Lives Matter protests and a law placing new restrictions on elections.