A Florida judge has ruled Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE Act” unconstitutional less than two months after the law went into effect. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida Judge Mark Walker’s 44-page ruling states that the law, which restricts race-based conversation in workplaces and schools, violates the First and 14th amendments. The law is officially blocked and no longer in effect—even during the state’s anticipated appeal. But after months of confusion about the vagueness of the law, and nearly two dozen key conservative school board victories, much of the law’s impact has already taken effect. Advocates hope the law remains blocked despite DeSantis’ planned appeal and that factual and historically accurate conversations about race can return to the classroom.
“In the popular television series ‘Stranger Things,’ the ‘upside down’ describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world,” Walker wrote in the ruling. “Now, like the heroine in ‘Stranger Things,’ this court is once again asked to pull Florida back from the upside down.”
DeSantis said he intends to appeal the block, but there is no information on when that will happen. In the meantime, however, several school districts will have officials pushing his agenda. Last week, four out of seven DeSantis-backed school board candidates in head-to-head elections won, opening the door to future censorship.
The federal lawsuit that was presented to the court arises from a group of businesses, including a Florida-based Ben & Jerry’s franchise and a workplace diversity consultancy. They argued that the law infringes on their company diversity training programs, which promote inclusion and elimination of bias and workplace harassment. Last week, the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed an additional lawsuit on behalf of students and educators in the state who say the law is racially motivated censorship that was enacted to stifle widespread demands to discuss, study, and address systemic inequalities.
Since the law went into effect on July 1, schools across the state were already preparing by censoring libraries, hiring media consultants, and in some cases, banning material altogether. In Palm Beach County, teachers were told to remove certain books from their classroom libraries and that all instructional materials available to their K-12 students, including classroom libraries, must be reviewed for compliance. Teachers were also told to fill out an extensive checklist to see if the school’s library media specialist needs to review their class library. According to the checklist, a book available to students in grades K-3 with a storyline where a character questions their own gender or sexual orientation should be submitted for review. In addition, the checklist also asks if the book promotes, compels, or encourages a student to believe “[p]eople are racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Any mention or reference to the 1619 Project was also prohibited. Lastly, the checklist prohibited any books that propose that racism is currently embedded in American society and its legal systems to uphold white supremacy.
In a recently updated instructional guidance, teachers in Palm Beach County were told that the 1619 Project may be included in classroom libraries or media centers and be available for student choice, but they may not be used for instruction, required reading, or included as part of a required assignment. The school district did not respond to inquiries about whether this will change now that the law has been blocked.
“When you look at the law, it really makes things unclear for teachers and employers, especially regarding what they can teach and train people on to create a better class environment or workplace environment,” said Victoria Kirby York, the deputy executive director for the National Black Justice Coalition. “It makes it harder for folks to truly learn about the true history of the U.S. We know that understanding our history is the number one way to ensure that we take best practices to move forward and also to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. That particular piece of law was written to prevent people from being able to have that knowledge.”
Critics of the law say the law made it hard for teachers and employers both to determine what counted as instruction—opening interpretation to conversations in the hallways or in the cafeteria or perhaps on a field trip. York calls the law the “Don’t Say Black” law since it directly censors conversations about race that could potentially make people feel uncomfortable. But, York asserts that the discomfort and fear is being placed on children by their own parents.
“As much as they say they’re worried about the discomfort of white children, they’re really taking away from all children, white children included, the opportunity to learn about resiliency and courage and strength in the face of struggle,” York said. “To learn how far our nation has come, from a nation built on genocide and enslavement to a nation where we’re moving closer and closer to having a nation that includes all of us, and that they can be a part of building that future.”
York said a historically accurate education prepares students for the real world and helps them know how to engage with people whom historical systemic racism has impacted.
“The truth of the matter is our history is filled with both pleasant moments and not pleasant moments, truths that make us comfortable, with truths that make us uncomfortable, but all of it is our history,” York said. “It’s important to know and important to teach so that we can learn from it. I hope that this is a blip and an asterisk in history and that we’re able to have meaningful conversations about our nation’s past, present, and future. It’s the only way that we’re going to truly be able to repair and finally heal the past actions of our nation.”