Florida’s ‘Stop WOKE Act’ Commits A ‘First Amendment Sin,’ Appeals Court Says In A Ruling That Blocks Part Of The Bill

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7, known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, in April 2022. (Miami Herald/Tribune News Service/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

By Shawn Nottingham, CNN

(CNN) — A federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling that part of Florida’s anti-“woke” law infringes on the free speech rights of employers.

“The government cannot favor some viewpoints over others without inviting First Amendment scrutiny,” the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said in its ruling Monday.

The Individual Freedom Act, better known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” was one of several bills Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in 2022 as part of his war on “woke ideology.” It was intended to prevent teachings or mandatory workplace activities that suggest a person is privileged or oppressed based on their race, color, sex or national origin.

“The ideas targeted in Florida’s Individual Freedom Act are embraced in some communities, and despised in others,” the ruling said. “By limiting its restrictions to a list of ideas designated as offensive, the Act targets speech based on its content. And by barring only speech that endorses any of those ideas, it penalizes certain viewpoints – the greatest First Amendment sin.”

DeSantis’ office slammed the court’s ruling in a statement Tuesday.

“Yesterday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that companies have a right to indoctrinate their employees with racist and discriminatory ideologies,” the statement said.

“We disagree with the Court’s opinion that employers can require employees to be taught — as a condition of employment — that one race is morally superior to another race. The First Amendment protects no such thing, and the State of Florida should have every right to protect Floridians from racially hostile workplaces. We are reviewing all options on appeal going forward.”

The term “woke” has turned into one of the most polarizing words in today’s political climate. For some, “woke” describes awareness, particularly about history, oppression and social justice issues. For others, “woke” is a pejorative used to denounce progressive action and certain teachings about race.

The challenge to DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE Act” was brought by two Florida-based employers who wanted to require diversity and inclusion training for staff and a consultant. The businesses are represented by Protect Democracy, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan, anti-authoritarianism group.”

“Speech codes have no place in American society, and elected officials have no business censoring the speech of business owners simply because they don’t agree with what’s being expressed,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, counsel for Project Democracy.

A federal judge had blocked the enforcement of parts of the law dealing with corporate training in August 2022, saying it “discriminates on the basis of viewpoint in violation of the First Amendment and is impermissibly vague in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The appeals court agreed, saying, “Even if we presumed that the Act served the interest of combating discrimination in some way, its breadth and scope would doom it. Banning speech on a wide variety of political topics is bad; banning speech on a wide variety of political viewpoints is worse.”

Opponents of the “Stop WOKE Act” are fighting it on three fronts: the law’s effects on K-12 schools, higher education and employers.

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that a temporary block on part of the law restricting what can be taught in Florida’s public colleges and universities will remain.

US District Judge Mark Walker called the law “positively dystopian.” A DeSantis spokesperson said at the time the appeal “is ongoing, and we remain confident that the law is constitutional.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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