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Free speech groups and Gov. DeSantis disagree on new ‘Stop Woke Act’

Free speech groups have criticized legislation recently signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis known as the “Stop Woke Act,” arguing it will unconstitutionally restrict university speech protected by the First Amendment.

DeSantis’ office says the new law prohibits discrimination against legally protected groups.

The Republican-supported legislation states that “subjecting individuals to specified concepts under certain circumstances constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin.” It prohibits teaching that endorses some progressive views, such as the inherent privilege or oppression of certain groups.

The governor proposed the legislation in December 2021.

“No taxpayer dollars should be used to teach our kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” DeSantis said during a Dec. 15 press conference announcing the proposal.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has opposed the law on the basis that it violates the free speech protections of the Constitution.

“The new law unconstitutionally prohibits instruction about certain issues regarding race and gender at Florida’s public colleges and universities. This bar restricts academic freedom,” FIRE’s senior legislative counsel Tyler Coward said in a statement to The College Fix on April 26.

“Government interference with what can be taught on public college campuses is prohibited by the First Amendment,” he said.

The ACLU also opposed the bill.

“This dangerous law is part of a nationwide trend to whitewash history and chill free speech in classrooms and workplaces. It will infringe on teachers’ and employers’ First Amendment rights and chill their ability to use concepts like systemic racism and gender discrimination to teach about and discuss important American history,” the group stated in a news release April 22.

Law bans ‘discriminatory ideology,’ DeSantis office says

Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Governor DeSantis, responded to FIRE’s analysis in a statement to The College Fix.

Pushaw distinguished between teaching students about ideas and “indoctrinating students with CRT-inspired discriminatory ideology.” The former is not banned by the bill, but the latter is prohibited.

She wrote that “universities are free to teach about topics like critical race theory. … For illustration: ‘Teaching law students that ‘critical race theory is an academic concept based on the idea that racism is embedded in the American legal system’ would not run afoul of the new law.”

However, she stated that teaching some ideas she identified as discriminatory would be prohibited.

Pushaw offered hypothetical examples: “a professor telling all their white students that they are inherently ‘privileged,’ all their black students that they are inherently ‘oppressed,’ all their Asian students that they are ‘white adjacent’ or suffer from ‘internalized whiteness and all their students that virtues like timeliness and individuality are somehow part of ‘whiteness.'”

“Floridians have legal protections against discrimination based on innate characteristics,” she added.

The legislation bans workplace training and academic instruction at any level that constitutes “discrimination” as Pushaw refers to it.

“Subjecting any individual, as a condition of employment, membership, certification, licensing, credentialing, or passing an examination, to training, instruction, or any other required activity that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such individual to believe specified concepts constitutes discrimination,” it states.

These “specified concepts” include a set of ideas from which Pushaw drew her examples, including that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” or “bears responsibility for…actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”

Moreover, it prohibits teaching which espouses a view that individuals “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.”

The law does state that these ideas can be taught if presented “as part of a course of training or instruction, provided such training or instruction is given in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts.”

The Florida House of Representatives passed the bill February 24 with a vote of 74-41, after several amendments were adopted and more than a dozen failed. The state Senate passed it March 10 with a vote that fell along party lines, with 24 Republicans voting in favor and 15 Democrats voting against.

DeSantis signed the partially amended bill into law on April 22, with the new policy set to take effect on July 1, 2022.

MORE: Academic freedom has limits inside the classroom, law professor says

IMAGE: Governor RonDeSantis/Facebook

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About the Author
Jacob Shields -- University of Maryland, College Park