More than a half-century ago, the Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment “does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom,” where “truth” is discovered not by “authoritative selection,” but “out of a multitude of tongues.” In a remarkable retreat from Florida’s Campus Free Expression Act, which recognized that universities should not “shield” students from “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive” opinions, Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” imposes precisely the “pall of orthodoxy” that the Supreme Court warned about decades ago.
The Stop WOKE Act prohibited “instruction” on eight specific “concepts” related to “race, color, national origin, or sex.” Fla. Stat. § 1000.05(4)(a). For example, the Stop WOKE Act unlawfully restricted discussions of whether individuals are unconsciously biased based on their race or sex; whether certain virtues — including “merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness” — are racist; and whether particular races or sexes inherently have certain privileges or disadvantages. But in dictating to faculty and students what ideas may be considered in a college classroom, Florida’s political leaders have run headlong into the First Amendment.
On August 6, 2022, a University of South Florida professor of history, undergraduate student, and student organization — represented by FIRE — sued in federal court to challenge the Stop WOKE Act for violating their constitutional rights.
In order to comply with the law, Professor Adriana Novoa had to refrain from advancing arguments from certain readings and lecture topics. Sam Rechek, an undergraduate student seeking to take Professor Novoa’s courses, could not engage in full and frank discussion of race in modern society with his professors if he feared that a professor’s response to his questions may be reported to administrators or government officials for formal action. Sam also leads USF’s First Amendment Forum, a student group committed to promoting the value of free speech on campus. Forum members no longer had access to information unfettered by ideologically-driven filters imposed by political officials.
The lawsuit names Florida State Board of Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., USF trustees, and other state education officials as defendants. With this lawsuit, Professor Novoa, Sam, and the Forum hope to remind the Florida government that it cannot impose ideological filters on what its citizens learn, teach, believe, and express.
On November 17, 2022, the court halted enforcement of key parts of the “Stop WOKE Act” in the state’s public universities, declaring that the law violates the First Amendment rights of students and faculty. The court ruled that the “positively dystopian” act “officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints.” The court invoked George Orwell to drive home that if “liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” After filing a notice of appeal, Florida asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to stay the preliminary injunction and allow the state to enforce the Stop WOKE Act while the appeal proceeds. FIRE opposed that motion. On March 16, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit denied Florida’s motion, keeping the Stop WOKE Act on hold in Florida’s public universities while the appeal remains pending.