Pernell v. Lamb: Lawsuit Challenging Florida’s Stop WOKE Act

Date Filed: 08/18/2022

Pernell v. Lamb

Challenging Florida's Stop W.O.K.E Act

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 law which restricts educators from teaching about race and gender in public schools, higher education institutions, and workplaces. The Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, ACLU of Florida, and the law firm Ballard Spahr are representing a group of Florida professors at public universities who are now severely restricted from engaging in classroom instruction about certain issues related to race and gender.

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 targets and places vague restrictions on educators’ ability to teach concepts such as racism, sexism, white privilege, and others. The law imposes harsh penalties, including ineligibility for all performance funding from the state for the colleges and universities — and termination — for educators who have been found to violate the law. Because the law is so vague, it is extremely difficult for educators to determine what they can or can’t teach, or what views might be interpreted to violate the law, leading to a chilling effect in the classroom.

Pernell 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.

LDF Original Content

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Public education has been taken hostage in Florida. And the state legislature and governor’s feverish campaign to strictly limit what facts and information can be accessed in public learning institutions is the driving force behind this egregious incursion.

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The word “woke” has been a signal urging Black people to be aware of the systems that harm and otherwise put us at a disadvantage since the 1920s. This piece explores how the term “woke” has been manipulated and maligned to hold back racial justice progress. 

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LDF has compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions about Critical Race Theory. Learn more about CRT, laws banning racial justice discourse, and how these fit into a larger effort to suppress the voices, history, and political participation of Black Americans.

LDF's Pro-Truth Work

Our students deserve and need more than a white-washed, sanitized, revised version of American history. LDF and coalition partners are fighting back to protect truth. Learn more about our pro-truth advocacy and litigation.