Lawsuit Challenging Florida’s Stop WOKE Act

Date Filed: 08/18/2022

Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors

Challenging H.B. 7: Florida's Anti-truth Law

On August 18, 2022, a group of higher education students and educators filed a lawsuit challenging Florida’s HB 7 — also known as the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (“Stop W.O.K.E.”) Act — a classroom censorship bill which severely restricts Florida educators and students from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender in higher education classrooms. The lawsuit charges that H.B. 7 unconstitutionally violates the First Amendment by imposing restrictions on speech and information in college classrooms, and is void for vagueness under the Fourteenth Amendment. Additionally, it argues the Stop W.O.K.E. Act violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was enacted with the intent to discriminate against Black educators and students.

The law limits Black and LGBTQ+ teachers especially from talking about their areas of expertise in the classroom and also puts these teachers at higher risk for losing their jobs under the law’s severe punishments for speech about race, gender, and sexuality.

Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors is the first lawsuit filed by LDF challenging anti-truth efforts and legislation. LDF has been deeply engaged in efforts to protect truth, and counter similar efforts to censor or restrict discussions about systemic inequalities.

H.B. 7 and attacks on truth are part of a larger effort to suppress the voice, history, and political participation of Black Americans.

Passed in March 2022, H.B. 7 is already chilling the speech of Black lecturers and students, and other lecturers and students who wish to speak about race, systemic inequality, white privilege, and other topics disfavored by the legislature. Black lecturers have already begun to leave Florida’s public colleges and universities because of H.B. 7 and the limitations on academic freedom it imposes. Others fear they may face complaints or legal action that could cost them their livelihood if they discuss race. H.B. 7 restricts professors/lecturers from facilitating meaningful, pedagogically appropriate conversations about race and inequality. Black lecturers who teach courses on systemic racism and discrimination do not believe they can faithfully teach these courses because HB 7 restricts their ability to discuss widely accepted concepts, such as the limitations of race-neutral approaches to addressing racial disparities. During H.B. 7’s passage, Black students and educators in Florida testified to legislators about the harm it would have on their ability to speak freely about issues of race and to challenge racism.

The right to free expression is a cornerstone of our democracy. Its protection is particularly critical for Black Americans and other marginalized groups who have a long history of battling infringement of this right.

Rather than allow important issues around race and gender discrimination to be debated and explored in public education, Florida lawmakers — working together with Gov. DeSantis — have moved to impose their own viewpoints in state higher education. The law prohibits educators from teaching or even expressing viewpoints around racism and sexism that are disfavored by Florida lawmakers, even where those viewpoints are widely accepted and considered foundational information in their academic disciplines. The bill targets and places vague restrictions on educators’ ability to teach and discuss important concepts pertaining to systemic inequalities, including the legacy of slavery in America, unconscious biases, racial privilege, and anti-racism. 

As a result of the bill’s passage, universities across Florida have canceled or scaled back diversity and inclusion trainings and have taken down public-facing statements denouncing racism. This creates a hostile climate that stigmatizes talking about race on campuses and generates fear among plaintiffs and other Black educators and students who teach or take coursework that discuss race and gender issues.

Case updates

On August 18, a district court granted a preliminary injunction in a separate case challenging H.B. 7 and blocked its enforcement as it relates to private businesses.

On August 25, LDF filed a motion in support of a preliminary injunction to block H.B. 7’s enforcement. The filing emphasizes how Black professors and students are already being impacted and harmed by the law and seeks to stop its enforcement while the case is being litigated.

On November 17, a federal judge issued an order that will immediately block members of the Florida Board of Governors from enforcing Florida’s HB 7. The order granted a preliminary injunction to six plaintiffs in Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors. And in separate litigation, Judge Walker blocked the law’s application to Florida employers. However, K-12 schools are still being impacted by this classroom censorship law. The preliminary victory in the case could bolster similar challenges to classroom censorship efforts in other states.  

On March 17, 2023, in an important victory for professors, other educators, and students across Florida, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals left in place a preliminary injunction blocking Florida’s HB 7 from being enforced in institutions of higher education, pending appeal. The procedural ruling maintains the preliminary injunction until the Eleventh Circuit issues a decision on the merits.  

Filed: October 2020

National Urban League v. Trump

In October 2020, LDF filed a putative class action lawsuit challenging former President Trump’s Executive Order 13950, which banned recipients of federal funds from carrying out gender and diversity trainings that promoted diversity, equity and inclusion. The EO was a precursor to and model for the Stop W.O.K.E. Act and other state-level measures targeting viewpoints related to race and identity. The EO was eventually revoked on the first day of the Biden Administration.

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