ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A trio of lawsuits target a Florida law championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that restricts race-based conversation and analysis in business and education, the latest filed Thursday by college professors and students claiming it is blatantly unconstitutional.
Known as the “Stop WOKE” act, the law targets what DeSantis has called a “pernicious” ideology exemplified by critical race theory — the idea that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions that serve to perpetuate white dominance in society.
The law prohibits teaching or business practices that contend members of one ethnic group are inherently racist and should feel guilt for past actions committed by others. It also bars the notion that a person’s status as privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by their race or gender, or that discrimination is acceptable to achieve diversity.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court claims the law amounts to “racially motivated censorship” that will act to “stifle widespread demands to discuss, study and address systemic inequalities” underscored by the national discussion of race following the killing of the Black man George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
“In place of free and open academic inquiry and debate, instructors fear discussing topics of oppression, privilege, and race and gender inequalities with which the Legislature disagrees,” the lawsuit says. “As a result, students are either denied access to knowledge altogether or instructors are forced to present incomplete or inaccurate information that is steered toward the Legislature's own views.”
Conservatives see critical race theory less as academic inquiry into truth and history and more as the imposition of a divisive ideology stemming from Marxism that assigns people into the categories of oppressor and oppressed based on their race.
The latest lawsuit joins two others already pending in Tallahassee federal court. Like the professors, a group of K-12 teachers and a student claim the law violates the Constitution's protections of free expression, academic freedom and access to information in public schools.
The other lawsuit was brought by private entities, Clearwater-based Honeyfund.com and others, claiming their free speech rights are curtailed because the law infringes on company training programs stressing diversity, inclusion, elimination of bias and prevention of workplace harassment. Companies with 15 or more employees could face civil lawsuits over such practices.
That lawsuit says Honeyfund seeks to protect the rights of private employers to “engage in open and free exchange of information with employees to identify and begin to address discrimination and harm" in their organizations.
“The Stop WOKE Act aims to forward the government’s preferred narrative of history and society and to render illegal speech that challenges that narrative,” the lawsuit says.
All of the lawsuits are in various stages in the legal process and seek to have the Stop WOKE act declared unconstitutional. DeSantis has repeatedly said any losses at the lower court level are likely to be reversed by appeals courts that are generally more conservative.
DeSantis is running for reelection as governor this year and is widely viewed as a contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. He has made cultural issues a cornerstone of his administration, particularly snuffing out what he calls “woke” entities and philosophies centered on issues of discrimination involving race, gender and sexual orientation.
“What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions and I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism,” DeSantis said in a December 2021 speech. “They really want to tear at the fabric of our society.”
Another example of this is DeSantis' effort to punish Walt Disney World for the company's opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law, labeled by critics as the “Don't Say Gay” law because it limits gender orientation instruction in early grades and chills discussion of the issue overall in schools.
The governor pushed the Legislature to end Disney World's special independent district that essentially enabled it to run its own private government. That law doesn't take full effect until June 2023 but has already been challenged in court.
Other lawsuits have challenged DeSantis priorities such as a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, a measure to fine tech companies if they “de-platform” political candidates over their viewpoints, an “anti-riot” law enacting new felonies following Black Lives Matter protests, a law placing new restrictions on elections and others.