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'Stranger Things' in Florida? Federal judge blocks part Stop WOKE Act; college professors file suit against the law

Gov. Ron DeSantis touted his proposed "Stop WOKE Act" at a press conference last December. Image: The Florida Channel
Gov. Ron DeSantis touted his proposed "Stop WOKE Act" at a press conference last December. Image: The Florida Channel

Seven Florida college professors, including two from University of Central Florida, and one student filed suit in federal court Thursday against the Stop WOKE Act.

The filing came on the same day a federal judge in a separate suit blocked parts of the act -- officially named the Individual Freedom Act -- relating to employee training by businesses. The new law, which went into effect on July 1, prohibits companies from using certain ideas associated with diversity and equity training.

In that case, Chief U.S. Judge Mark E. Walker of the Northern District of Florida issued the injunction, saying "the challenged provision of the Act is a naked viewpoint-based regulation on speech that does not pass strict scrutiny."

Walker compares Florida to The Upside Down dimension in the Netflix show "Stranger Things."

"Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment upside down," he wrote. "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."

The lawsuit filed Thursday addresses how the Stop WOKE Act restricts what teachers can say about sexism and racism. They cannot, for instance, endorse theories about systemic racism or make students feel guilty about it.

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups argue the new law is unconstitutional, that it puts viewpoint restrictions on free speech and violates equal protection and due process.

Morenike Fajana with the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund says they're alleging intentional discrimination.

"Statements of the bill's sponsors and also Gov. DeSantis, even down to its name -- it's literally stopping wokeness -- show that the law is a direct reaction to the wave of racial justice speech, protests and initiatives that we saw since 2020," Fajana said.

She added, "This law is really about suppressing anti-racist speech and education. It's designed to silence the scholarship and leadership of Black educators."

Gov. Ron DeSantis touted the bill in April as helping famil "stand up against discrimination and woke indoctrination."

The two plaintiffs from UCF are Shelley Park, a professor of philosophy and cultural studies, and Jennifer Sandoval, an associate professor at the Nicholson School of Communication and Media.

Joe Byrnes came to Central Florida Public Media from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.