IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

ACLU files lawsuit challenging Florida's 'Stop WOKE Act'

The complaint charges that the act is racially motivated censorship enacted by the Florida Legislature to stifle demands to discuss, study and address systemic inequalities.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB7, called the "Stop WOKE Act," at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on April 22.Daniel A. Varela / Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, the Legal Defense Fund and a national law firm filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging Florida's "Stop WOKE Act," which restricts how race, gender and inequality are discussed in schools, colleges and workplaces.

The complaint, filed in federal court, names the Florida Board of Governors of the State University System and the commissioner of the Florida State Board of Education as defendants.

Renee Fargason, a spokeswoman for the Florida Board of Governors of the State University System, said she could not comment on pending litigation. Cassie Palelis, a Florida department of education spokesperson, said Friday: "We do not comment on matters pertaining to pending litigation."

It also names as defendants the boards of trustees at several public universities within the university system. They have made no public comment on the lawsuit. DeSantis' communications office did not immediately return a request for comment.

The complaint charges that the "Stop WOKE Act" is racially motivated censorship enacted by the Florida Legislature 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 2020 killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

As part of the racial reckoning spurred by their deaths, people across disciplines, including professors and other educators at universities, sought to talk about the importance of racial justice in their work, and a number of departments issued statements that emphasized their commitment to anti-racism in their classrooms, Leah Watson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said in an interview Wednesday.

"After the 'Stop WOKE Act' went into effect, many of those statements were withdrawn altogether," Watson said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in April. The legislation, officially known as House Bill 7, passed the Florida House and Florida Senate along party lines. It bars instruction that might make members of one race feel guilty for past actions committed by their race and also bars the notion that meritocracy is racist or that people are privileged or oppressed based on race, gender or national origin. It also prevents the teaching of critical race theory, which opponents of the legislation have said is not taught in Florida's K-12 public schools.

"We believe in education, not indoctrination," DeSantis said at the signing.

He added: "We're not going to tell a kindergartener that they're an oppressor based on their race and what may have happened 100 or 200 years ago. And we're not going to tell other kids that they're oppressed based on their race."

Schoolchildren holding signs against the concept of critical race theory
Schoolchildren hold signs against critical race theory before Gov. DeSantis signs HB7 in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on April 22.Daniel A. Varela / Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Several of the plaintiffs are professors or assistant professors who have been limited in their ability to provide instruction that meets the standards of their respective disciplines because of the passage of the 'Stop WOKE Act,' the complaint alleges.

"There is a long history in higher education of educators having a First Amendment right to determine what is taught in their courses and how to teach it," Watson said. "This has been long standing, recognized by the Supreme Court, affirmed many times over. And that academic freedom is a constitutional protection that belongs to professors."

Watson said the "Stop WOKE Act" infringes on that academic freedom and tells professors what they can teach or how they can teach it, which, she said, "is one of the biggest impacts of the law."

"The law requires educators to present information objectively without endorsement and part of their job. Their role as an educator in higher education is to explain the difference between truth and misinformation to direct students towards academic consensus and to identify active academic debates," Watson said. "And they can't do that within the confines of the law."

The complaint also alleges that the legislation violates the First Amendment (the right to receive information free from viewpoint-based discrimination) and the 14th Amendment, saying it "is unconstitutionally vague on its face because it fails to provide fair notice of what college professors, student teaching assistants, and other instructors can and cannot say in their courses, and because it invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement."

The plaintiffs asked the court to declare the act "facially unconstitutional" under these amendments, and to be reimbursed for attorneys fees and related expenses.