A few days ago, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit on behalf of USF history professor Adriana Novoa, a USF student organization called the First Amendment Forum — and me. Our complaint challenges the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act, passed by the Florida Legislature as HB 7 and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this spring.
I’m suing over the Stop WOKE Act because I believe it violates my First Amendment right to be free from what the Supreme Court has called a “pall of orthodoxy” on a public university campus.
I’m the president of the First Amendment Forum (which we shorten to 1AF), and we have hosted numerous discussions over the years about precisely the topics that are regulated in HB 7 — race, sex, gender and their complex histories in the United States. I’m a senior this fall, and during my three years at USF, I’ve had the opportunity to investigate many of the statute’s prohibited “concepts” in class. These discussions have been some of the most rewarding and memorable of my time as an undergraduate.
For example, in my Constitutional Law II course, our class read and discussed the merits of affirmative action with cases like Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a debate that, to some, is about whether college applicants should be subject to “adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion.” In another, Contemporary Political Theory, my class read and debated the “virtues of merit, excellence (and) hard work” as remnants of past racial injustice after reading Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit.
There is a reason I remember these class discussions months — even years — after they took place. In these classrooms, I encountered a host of divergent moral principles and began to build out my own worldview. This process of discovering one’s place in the moral landscape is so baked into the idea of a liberal arts education that to threaten it might be to abandon the project of the liberal academy itself. (And I mean “liberal” in the intellectually open-minded, not the political, sense of the word.)
If the Stop WOKE Act is enforced, students across the state will be robbed of these valuable and formative class discussions.
I’m also suing because the Stop WOKE Act represents a stain on legitimate victories for free speech in Florida. The 2018 Campus Free Expression Act outlawed unconstitutional “free speech zones” across the state. In 2019, the Board of Governors and all State University System of Florida institutions adopted the “Free Expression Statement.” This year, the Board of Governors released a set of recommendations for universities to better promote civil discourse on campus.
I was part of USF President Rhea Law’s work group to implement these recommendations at USF, and I’m convinced that the steps we’ve taken make USF a leader in civil discourse. We’ve piloted a free speech module for freshman orientation, worked to revise our policies for adherence to First Amendment case law, and encouraged Student Government to consider their role in promoting civil discourse. Actions like these are being replicated at universities across Florida.
The Stop WOKE Act casts a shadow over progress in the principles of civil discourse and freedom of speech — both at USF and in Florida.
In her 1957 Christmas address, the late Queen Elizabeth II called upon citizens of her nation — indeed, of the world — to embrace “a special kind of courage … a kind which makes us stand up for everything we know is right.”
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Free speech advocates are never too sure that they are right. Yet to me, the principles of free expression seem like the closest thing to truth that we can achieve. That’s why I’m standing up against the Stop WOKE Act.
Sam Rechek is president of First Amendment Forum, a student organization at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he is a rising senior. He is also a former summer intern at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and the Florida First Amendment Foundation.