Florida’s ‘Stop-Woke’ law receives severe criticism from appeals court, deemed to commit the ‘greatest First Amendment sin.’

A federal appeals court has ruled that Florida is legally prohibited from enforcing a significant component of the 2022 law, which aimed to restrict workplace trainings on race that Governor Ron DeSantis referred to as “woke.” The court determined that this policy goes beyond the limits set by the First Amendment.

A ruling by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has delivered a setback to the DeSantis administration. The panel declared the “Stop Woke” Act, one of the Republican governor’s key laws, as unconstitutional, affirming a previous ruling that halted its implementation. While officials from the DeSantis administration have expressed disagreement with the decision, there are indications that the governor may seek the intervention of the Supreme Court.

“In the opinion, Judge Britt C. Grant, a former President Donald Trump appointee, argued that the Act’s restrictions specifically target speech based on its content by focusing on a list of designated offensive ideas. Grant further stated that the Act penalizes certain viewpoints by prohibiting speech that endorses any of those ideas, which he considers to be a violation of the First Amendment.”

In 2022, Florida’s Republican-led Legislature, with the support of DeSantis, passed the “anti-woke” legislation known as FL HB 7 (22R), also referred to as the Individual Freedom Act. This law expanded Florida’s anti-discrimination laws to prevent schools and companies from assigning blame or guilt to students and employees based on their race or sex. The legislation specifically targeted lessons on topics like “white privilege” by introducing new protections for students and workers. These protections include preventing individuals from being compelled to experience feelings of guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress based on their race, color, sex, or national origin.

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A coalition of businesses, including honeymoon registry technology company Honeyfund.com and Florida-based Ben & Jerry’s franchisee Primo Tampa, has taken legal action to challenge workplace policies that they consider “anti-woke.” The companies, represented by Protect Democracy and law firm Ropes & Gray, argue that these policies compel them to stifle open discussions on important societal issues and hinder their ability to engage employees in meaningful conversations aimed at improving their workplaces. The coalition also includes workplace diversity consultancy Collective Concepts and its co-founder Chevara Orrin.

The DeSantis administration, however, disagreed with the appeals ruling and argued that the court had recognized the right of companies to instill racist and discriminatory ideologies in their employees. The state is currently evaluating all possible options for appealing the decision.

Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for DeSantis, expressed disagreement with the Court’s opinion that employers have the ability to mandate employees to be taught that one race is morally superior to another race as a condition of employment. Redfern stated that the First Amendment does not protect such a notion and emphasized that the State of Florida should be allowed to safeguard its residents from racially hostile work environments.

The state’s attorneys and DeSantis have contended in court that the “anti-woke” law does not curtail freedom of speech. Instead, it focuses on preventing employers from compelling employees to listen to specific speech against their wishes, with the consequence of potential job loss.

In a detailed 22-page ruling, the appeals court expressed its disagreement with the proposed policies, highlighting potential flaws in the law. The panel of judges raised concerns that such policies could enable a government to prohibit individuals from riding on a parade float simply because they disagreed with the message displayed on the banner.

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“We strongly disagree with and dismiss this latest effort to regulate speech by reframing it as conduct,” expressed Grant, who was joined by Judges Charles Wilson and Andrew Brasher. “Florida may be correct in its assessment of the types of ideas it aims to address. Alternatively, it may not. Regardless, the validity of these viewpoints will be determined in the vibrant marketplace of ideas, rather than in a rulebook or a courtroom.”

The group suing the state and their attorneys hailed Monday’s ruling as a significant triumph for free speech in the workplace.

Shalini Goel Agarwal, counsel for Protect Democracy, strongly opposes the use of speech codes in American society. According to Agarwal, elected officials should not have the authority to censor the speech of business owners, even if they disagree with the content being expressed. Agarwal argues that preventing employers from engaging in speech that goes against the preferences of influential politicians is reminiscent of the tactics used by authoritarian regimes.

The Stop-Woke Act’s application to race-related lessons in higher education is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit in federal court. Just like the previous case, this particular provision of the law has been temporarily halted by a preliminary injunction and is currently awaiting a hearing in June.

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