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A lawsuit says Florida's new anti-WOKE law violates free speech rights

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that limits the way race-related issues can be taught in schools and in workplace training at a charter school in Hialeah Gardens Friday, April 22, 2022.
Florida Governor's Office
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that limits the way race-related issues can be taught in schools and in workplace training at a charter school in Hialeah Gardens Friday, April 22, 2022.

Continuing a crusade by Republican state leaders against critical race theory, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a bill that will limit the way race-related issues can be taught in schools and in workplace training.

But the law immediately drew a challenge in federal court, with plaintiffs arguing that it violates First Amendment rights.

The Republican-dominated House and Senate passed the measure (HB 7) during this year’s regular legislative session after tense, hours-long debates in both chambers.

During a bill-signing event Friday at a charter school in Hialeah Gardens, DeSantis called critical race theory a “pernicious ideology.” The theory, known by its acronym CRT, is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American society and institutions.

The governor touted the bill from behind a placard that said “freedom from indoctrination.” As he signed the measure, he was flanked by students who held signs showing a circular red “cancel sign” over the letters CRT. Three parents who spoke during the event shared examples of what they described as critical race theory in their children’s school lessons.

But the lawsuit, filed in the federal Northern District of Florida on behalf of five plaintiffs, seeks to block the new law and a rule approved last year by the State Board of Education that targeted instruction on critical race theory.

“This case arises from the Florida Legislature and Executive Branch’s efforts to suppress speech in Florida’s schools and workplaces by passing laws that forbid Florida’s teachers and employers from endorsing concepts about race and sex with which Florida’s conservative politicians disagree,” said the lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the Jacksonville firm of Sheppard, White, Kachergus, DeMaggio & Wilkison, P.A.

“These laws are unconstitutional viewpoint-based restrictions on speech that regulate the speech of Florida’s teachers and business owners in violation of their First Amendment Rights.”

Incoming House Minority Leader Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, called the law an attempt to “whitewash” history and said Friday was a “sad day in our state's history.”

The law enumerates race-related concepts that would constitute discrimination if taught in classrooms or while training employees.

Part of the law dealing with schools labels instruction discriminatory if it leads people to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past” by people of the same race or sex.

The law also seeks to prohibit instruction that would cause students to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” because of past actions “in which the person played no part” committed by members of the same race or sex.

“We believe that every single student matters, every single student counts. We are not going to categorize you based on your race. We are not going to tell some kindergartener that they are an oppressor based on their race and what may have happened 100 or 200 years ago. And we’re not going to tell other kids that they are oppressed based on their race,” DeSantis said, eliciting loud applause during Friday’s event.

DeSantis said the measure “provides substantive protections” for students and parents that will prevent instruction from diverging from state academic standards.

But Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association statewide teachers’ union, criticized the measure, saying it was based on a “manufactured political narrative.” Spar also argued the law distracts from real issues facing Florida’s public-education system.

“No matter where we live or what we look like, we all want what’s best for our kids. Parents and educators want to help students grow into well-informed, successful adults who are equipped to think for themselves. The full, fair facts of history are part of a high-quality education,” Spar said in a statement Friday.

“For students to learn anything, however, we need to address the 9,000 projected teacher vacancies and more than 5,000 current vacancies for support staff in our public schools.”

The law also targets employers’ training sessions based on a similar set of factors.

For example, a training exercise would be labeled discriminatory if it “compels” employees to believe that their “moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.”

Democrats during the legislative session argued that the measure would leave businesses vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits from disgruntled employees.

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez joined DeSantis for the bill-signing ceremony, saying that the law is the first in the nation “to end corporate wokeness” and critical race theory in schools.

Also among prominent Republicans who joined the governor Friday was the measure’s Senate sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who was announced Thursday as DeSantis’ pick to become the state’s next education commissioner.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor, slammed the new law as “state-sanctioned hatred” and called it unconstitutional.

“This bill is a vile attempt to erase our country’s history, censor businesses and schools, and whitewash history,” Fried said in a statement.

DeSantis pushed back on the accusation that the law will stop history from being taught accurately, saying that instruction on parts of history such as the Holocaust and slavery are requirements in the state.

The law includes a provision that allows teachers to facilitate discussion and use curriculums to address “in an age-appropriate manner, how the freedoms of persons have been infringed by sexism, slavery, racial oppression” and other related concepts.

DeSantis, who has embraced the “free state of Florida” rallying cry coined by supporters, touted the law as a continuation of that philosophy.

“We believe an important component of freedom in the state of Florida is the freedom from having oppressive ideologies imposed upon you without your consent, whether it be in the classroom or whether it be in the workplace. And we decided to do something about it,” DeSantis said.

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Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida