Loyola University Chicago School of Law, J.D. Candidate 2025
Florida recently passed the “Stop W.O.K.E” Act (Senate Bill 147 / House Bill 7) (The “Act”), effectively banning public colleges in the state from using funds on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. Florida’s governor and current Presidential candidate, Ron Desantis, defines W.O.K.E as “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees”. The passing of this legislation follows another highly controversial piece of legislation passed earlier this year, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that largely bars Florida educators from discussing LGBTQIA+ topics with students. Governor Desantis has led an aggressive campaign against academic freedom to combat a perceived “woke indoctrination in [U.S] schools, that is a road to ruin for this country”. The implementation of this legislation brings up valid concerns regarding the First Amendment rights of the State’s educators and population at large.
Stop W.O.K.E Act
Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E” Act essentially prohibits instruction on race relations or diversity that imply that a person’s status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin, or sex. To comply with the Act, the Florida Board of Governors has required each Florida university implement investigatory protocols that mandate the University to notify the Board if an instructor’s teachings or training violate the Act. If the professor refuses to comply with the new policies, the University has the right to terminate them from their position.
Various courses of study, including Gender Studies, African-American Studies, and more, are at risk due to the implementation of this Act. These concerns are not unfounded, as AP African-American Studies has already been barred from Florida high schools curriculum due to its “lack of educational value”. If these disciplines are found to be in violation of the Act and ultimately removed from the higher education curriculum, thousands of educators could be at risk of losing their jobs.
Alleged First Amendment Violations
The Supreme Court has made clear that academic freedom is of special concern to the First Amendment through its bar of laws that cast a ‘pall of orthodoxy’ over the classroom. Further, Florida court’s have affirmed that the First Amendment protects the right to receive information, which is dependent on the protection of an individual’s right to disseminate that information. The restraints this Act implements directly go against these principles.
Through its vague, but wide-stretching ban of race-related topics, the Act makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to have a complete and honest conversation about American history and their personal experiences. Classrooms are meant to be a marketplace of ideas, with instructors leading the difficult, but necessary conversations that focus on our society. The government has no legitimate interest in preventing this dialogue from occurring.
Harm on BIPOC Communities
Black and Brown communities, as well as the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, NAACP, and the Legal Defense Fund, understand this law to be as horrifying as it seems. The NAACP has issued a travel advisory for African Americans, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals, citing Florida’s recent legislation as a direct attack on communities of color and their lived experiences with racism and discrimination.
This Act bars the already limited funding that public universities allocate towards diversity and inclusion. This harms communities of color, specifically Black Americans, by erasing their history and criminalizing open and honest conversations about their history. However, communities of color are not the only ones harmed by this miseducation. The censorship occurring in Florida is a disservice to every person living in Florida and should be a major concern to Americans at large. Not only is it a disservice, but it is against the core values outlined in our Constitution, specifically in the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects discussions about these topics, leaving no place for politics to decide what discussions are “appropriate” for educational institutions.
Schools and universities enjoy the right to limit the speech of their employees as it pertains to their official duties, but these limitations must serve a legitimate purpose. Censorship based solely on the popularity of ideologies cannot stand.
NCF Freedom, a non-profit organization in Florida dedicated to protecting academic freedom and educational innovation, filed a lawsuit against the Florida Board of Governors of the State University System, and the Board of Trustees at New College of Florida. In their lawsuit, NCF Freedom alleges that the Act violates the First Amendment through its censorship of the teaching and discussion of topics that the current administration finds unfavorable.
Similar lawsuits alleging First Amendment violations are likely to be filed against the State and Florida Board of Governors in the coming months. Students and educators should not suffer due to political agendas. Sadly, that seems to be the current case in Florida.