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Fri, Mar

'Important Victory' for Florida Higher Ed: Court Upholds Block on DeSantis Censorship Law

VOICES

EDUCATION - The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday kept in place a preliminary injunction against Florida GOP policymakers' school censorship law in what rights advocates celebrated as "an important victory for professors, other educators, and students."

The appellate court denied a request from Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration and higher education officials to block a district judge's injunction that is currently preventing enforcement of the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act—rebranded by its supporters as the Individual Freedom Act—in the state's public colleges and universities.

DeSantis' Stop WOKE Act "limits the ways concepts related to systemic racism and sex discrimination can be discussed in teaching or conducting training in workplaces or schools," parroting a Trump administration executive order that was ultimately rescinded by President Joe Biden, the ACLU explained last year.

The plaintiffs in one of the relevant cases, Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors, are represented by the national and state ACLU along with the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and Ballard Spahr, who first filed the federal suit last August—the same day U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, issued a separate injunction against the law related to employers.

The new appeals court order upholds the injunction Walker issued in November, which began by quoting George Orwell's novel 1984. Calling the controversial law "positively dystopian," the judge wrote at the time that "the powers in charge of Florida's public university system have declared the state has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of 'freedom.'"

"All students and educators deserve to have a free and open exchange about issues related to race in our classrooms."

Leah Watson, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said Thursday that "the court's decision to leave in place the preliminary injunction is a recognition of the serious injury posed to educators and students by the Stop WOKE Act."

"All students and educators deserve to have a free and open exchange about issues related to race in our classrooms," Watson argued, rather than censored discussions that erase "the history of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals."

LDF assistant counsel Alexsis Johnson similarly stressed that "institutions of higher education in Florida should have the ability to provide a quality education, which simply cannot happen when students and educators, including Black students and educators, feel they cannot speak freely about their lived experiences, or when they feel that they may incur a politician's wrath for engaging in a fact-based discussion of our history."

The order also pertains to a challenge filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) in September.

"Professors must be able to discuss subjects like race and gender without hesitation or fear of state reprisal," FIRE said Thursday. "Any law that limits the free exchange of ideas in university classrooms should lose in both the court of law and the court of public opinion."

The Stop WOKE Act is part of a nationwide effort by Republican state lawmakers and governors—especially DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate—to curtail what content can be shared and discussed in classrooms and workplaces.

"Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism,"  according to an Education Week analysis updated on Monday. "Eighteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues."

ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jerry Edwards warned Thursday that "lawmakers continue to threaten our democracy by attempting to curtail important discussions about our collective history and treatment of Black and Brown communities."

"This is an important step in preserving the truth, civil liberties, and a better future," Edwards said of the 11th Circuit's decision. 

Though legal groups welcomed the order, the battle over the law is ongoing. The court will eventually rule on the merits of the case—which DeSantis' press secretary Bryan Griffin highlighted Thursday, adding, "We remain confident that the law is constitutional."

Opponents of the law are also undeterred, as Ballard Spahr litigation department chair Jason Leckerman made clear. 

"The movement to restrict academic freedom and curtail the rights of marginalized communities is as pervasive as it is pernicious," he said. "We are proud of the work we have done so far with our partners, the ACLU and Legal Defense Fund, but the fight is far from over. Today, we'll take a moment to savor this result—and then we'll keep working."

This post has been updated with comment from FIRE and Gov. Ron DeSantis' press secretary.

(Jessica Corbett is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this article was first published.)