Federal appeals court blocks Florida’s ‘Stop WOKE Act’ rules for businesses

Federal appeals court blocks Florida’s ‘Stop WOKE Act’ rules for businesses

A federal appeals court ruled unanimously Monday to block a Florida law preventing businesses from requiring employees to attend workplace trainings that promote diversity and inclusion, affirming a temporary injunction issued by a lower court.

“This is not the first era in which Americans have held widely divergent views on important areas of morality, ethics, law, and public policy,” a three-judge panel for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in Monday’s decision. “And it is not the first time that these disagreements have seemed so important, and their airing so dangerous, that something had to be done. But now, as before, the First Amendment keeps the government from putting its thumb on the scale.”

Florida officials, since introducing the “Stop WOKE Act” — in which “woke” is an acronym for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees” — have argued that the legislation is intended to combat alleged indoctrination in schools and workplaces.

The law prevents Florida educators and businesses from requiring individuals to participate in activities that promote “discriminatory concepts” constituting unlawful discrimination, including that members of one race or sex are “morally superior” to those of another and that a person, by virtue of their race, sex or national origin, “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion.”

“In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces. There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a frequent critic of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, said while signing the bill in 2022.

Three Florida businesses sued the state that June, and a federal judge in August 2022 blocked portions of the law pertaining to private employers, ruling that the restrictions violate free speech protections under the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause for being impermissibly vague.

“Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment upside down,” District Court Judge Mark Walker wrote in the ruling. “Normally, the First Amendment bars the state from burdening speech, while private actors may burden speech freely. But in Florida, the First Amendment apparently bars private actors from burdening speech, while the state may burden speech freely.”

Attorneys for the state argued in an appeal that, in this case, ordinary First Amendment review is not applicable because the law in question restricts conduct, not speech. Monday’s three-judge panel said they disagreed.

“We cannot agree, and we reject this latest attempt to control speech by recharacterizing it as conduct,” the panel said. “Florida may be exactly right about the nature of the ideas it targets. Or it may not. Either way, the merits of these views will be decided in the clanging marketplace of ideas rather than a codebook or a courtroom.”

DeSantis’s office told The Hill in a statement that it was “reviewing all options on appeal going forward.”

Protect Democracy, the nonprofit organization representing the Florida businesses challenging the law, celebrated Monday’s ruling as a win for free speech in the workplace.

“Speech codes have no place in American society, and elected officials have no business censoring the speech of business owners simply because they don’t agree with what’s being expressed,” Protect Democracy counsel Shalini Goel Agarwal said in a statement.

“Barring employers from engaging in speech that powerful politicians don’t like is a move straight out of the authoritarian playbook. Today is a good day for the First Amendment and the ability of American businesses to speak freely,” she said.

Updated 10:41 a.m.

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