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Federal appeals court weighs Florida's 'Stop WOKE Act'

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A federal appeals court Friday heard arguments in a battle about a 2022 Florida law that restricts how race-related concepts can be taught in state universities, a law that Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the "Stop WOKE Act."

Grappling with issues of government power and academic freedom, a federal appeals court Friday heard arguments in a battle about a 2022 Florida law that restricts how race-related concepts can be taught in state universities, a law that Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the "Stop WOKE Act."

Grappling with issues of government power and academic freedom, a federal appeals court Friday heard arguments in a battle about a 2022 Florida law that restricts how race-related concepts can be taught in state universities — a law that Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act.”

The state appealed after Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in November 2022 issued a preliminary injunction against the law, which he said violated First Amendment rights.

Charles Cooper, an attorney for the state, told a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals during Friday’s hearing that the state has the authority to make choices about the content of university courses. He argued that legal precedents back upholding the constitutionality of the law.

“The cases are legion that the government gets to have a viewpoint,” Cooper said.

But Leah Watson, an attorney for university instructors who challenged the law, disputed Cooper’s arguments and said the purpose of the law “is only to suppress disfavored views.” She pointed to academic freedom and said universities, not the Legislature, should enforce standards.

“Classroom instruction is not government speech,” said Watson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program.

Rulings in such cases typically take months.

DeSantis made a priority of the law, which he called the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or “Stop WOKE Act.” In recent years, he has frequently criticized what he calls “indoctrination” in education and has helped engineer an overhaul of New College of Florida — part of the state university system — to try to make it more conservative.

The law lists a series of race-related concepts and says it would constitute discrimination if students are subjected to instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels” them to believe the concepts.

As an example, the law labels instruction discriminatory if students are led to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

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

But in issuing the preliminary injunction, Walker, who was nominated to bench by former President Barack Obama, called the law “positively dystopian” and said it is “antithetical to academic freedom and has cast a leaden pall of orthodoxy over Florida’s state universities.”

Walker also separately issued a preliminary injunction against part of the law that placed restrictions on addressing race-related issues in workplace training. A panel of the appeals court in March upheld that injunction.

But a key issue in Friday’s hearing centered on how much authority the Legislature has to decide what is said in state classrooms. Judge Barbara Lagoa, for example, said a university is an “inherently state institution” and said the issue involves speech of state employees.

Judge Charles Wilson, meanwhile, seemed skeptical of the state’s arguments, including citing what he described as an “academic freedom exception” to government speech restrictions.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.