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Florida judge blocks ‘positively dystopian’ school censorship law

The 139-page ruling shuts down a law signed earlier this year by Governor Ron DeSantis, warning that democracy suffers when challenging ideas are extinguished.

(CN) — Republicans trying to censor how race and sex are taught at public universities were met with a sweeping injunction Thursday from an Obama-appointed federal judge.

“Both robust intellectual inquiry and democracy require light to thrive. Our professors are critical to a healthy democracy, and the State of Florida’s decision to choose which viewpoints are worthy of illumination and which must remain in the shadows has implications for us all,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in the 139-page ruling out of Florida’s Northern District Court.

“One thing is crystal clear,” Walker continued. “If our ‘priests of democracy’ are not allowed to shed light on challenging ideas, then democracy will die in darkness.”

Representing the professors in the case, Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression celebrated the ruling.

“Faculty members are hired to offer opinions from their academic expertise — not toe the party line,” Steinbaugh said in a statement. “Florida’s argument that faculty members have no First Amendment rights would have imperiled faculty members across the political spectrum.”

Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, vowed to appeal the injunction. "The Stop Woke Act protects the open exchange of ideas by prohibiting teachers or employers who hold agency over others from forcing discriminatory concepts on students as part of classroom instruction or on employees as a condition of maintaining employment," Griffin said. “An ‘open-minded and critical’ environment necessitates that one is free from discrimination."

DeSantis signed the so-called Stop Woke Act in April, amending the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 by forbidding eight concepts based on race, color, sex or national origin from being promoted through workplace training and educational instructional materials.

Officially known as the Individual Freedom Act, one element of the bill forbids employers and educators from suggesting that “members of one race, color, sex, or national origin are morally superior to members of another race, color, sex, or national origin.” It would also outlaw the teaching that “such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, sex, or national origin to oppress members of another race, color, sex, or national origin.”

A group of university professors filed suit in August, challenging the law arguing the act is “racially motivated censorship that the Florida legislature enacted, in significant part, to stifle widespread demands to discuss, study, and address systemic inequalities, following the nationwide protests that provoked discussions about race and racism in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.”

In their complaint, the instructors expressed concerns that the state could use the law to withhold public funding from state colleges and universities. They also lamented that, with these restrictions on speech, “students are either denied access to knowledge altogether or receive incomplete or inaccurate information from instructors that is steered toward the legislature’s own views.” The rules would directly implicate topics like affirmative action, the effects of ongoing systemic racial discrimination and white privilege, and theories around gender and sex.

Attorneys for Florida argued in return that, as an employer, the state could restrict what public university professors say in their classrooms.

Walker balked in his decision: "This is positively dystopian."

Finding the law in violation of the First and 14th Amendments, Walker said the law “muzzle[s] its professors in the name of ‘freedom.’” 

“It should go without saying that ‘[i]f liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,’” Walker wrote.

“It should go without saying that enacting a prophylactic ban on protected expression of certain viewpoints—in the interest of suppressing those viewpoints because the State of Florida finds them ‘repugnant’ — is neither sufficiently weighty nor reasonable. If that were the case, the State of Florida could declare any idea repugnant and prohibit its professors from expressing approval of that idea while in the classroom,” he continued, calling the law an attempted “end-run around the First Amendment.”

Walker ordered a similar injunction against the law in August. That case has been appealed to the 11th Circuit.

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