A federal appeals court has denied Florida’s request to enforce its controversial Individual Freedom act, also called the Stop Woke act, at colleges and universities while a lawsuit challenging the controversial 2022 law is pending.
The ruling from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals follows a federal judge’s injunction against enforcement in November, which the state appealed.
The injunction by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker came as a result of two lawsuits alleging the law stifles speech and prevents free discussion of race and racial history in the classroom. One case was filed by a student and a professor from the University of South Florida, with representation by the civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. The other was filed by a Florida A&M law professor backed by several groups, including the Legal Defense Fund.
“Professors must be able to discuss subjects like race and gender without hesitation or fear of state reprisal,” the foundation said in a statement Thursday. “Any law that limits the free exchange of ideas in university classrooms should lose in both the court of law and the court of public opinion.”
Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said in an email the ruling was not about the law itself.
”The court did not rule on the merits of our appeal,” he said. “The appeal is ongoing, and we remain confident that the law is constitutional.”
The Stop Woke act, which is formally named the Individual Freedom act or HB 7, was signed into law last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who heavily promoted it. It prohibits workplaces and schools from promoting concepts that make anyone feel “guilt, anguish or other psychological distress” related to race, color, national origin or sex because of actions “committed in the past,” among other provisions.
In his November order issuing the injunction, Walker quoted George Orwell and said the law gives the state “unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom.’”
Alexsis Johnson, assistant counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, said the organization was heartened by the appellate decision.
She said in a statement: “Institutions of higher education in Florida should have the ability to provide a quality education, which simply cannot happen when students and educators, including Black students and educators, feel they cannot speak freely about their lived experiences, or when they feel that they may incur a politician’s wrath for engaging in a fact-based discussion of our history.”
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.