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 that prevents businesses from requiring employees to attend workplace training that promotes diversity and inclusion, upholding a temporary injunction issued by a lower court.

“This is not the first era in which Americans have widely divergent views on important areas of morality, ethics, law and public policy,” a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in Monday’s decision. “And not for the first time, these disagreements seem so important, and their airing so dangerous, that something must be done.” But now, as before, the First Amendment prevents 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 with our children and staff” — have argued that the legislation aims 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” that constitute illegal discrimination, including that members of one race or gender are “morally superior” to those of another and that a person, by virtue of their race, gender or national origin, “should not be discriminated against or receive unfavorable treatment in order to achieve diversity, equality or inclusion”.

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

Three Florida businesses sued the state in June, and a federal judge in August 2022 blocked parts of the law that applied to private employers, ruling that the restrictions violated free speech protections under the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment , as they are unacceptably vague.

“Recently, Florida has looked like the First Amendment upside down,” District Court Judge Mark Walker wrote in the decision. “Ordinarily, the First Amendment prohibits the state from burdening speech, while private individuals are free to burden speech. But in Florida, the First Amendment clearly prohibits private actors from burdening speech, while the state can freely burden speech.

Attorneys for the state argued on appeal that ordinary First Amendment scrutiny did not apply in this case because the law in question restricted conduct, not speech. The three-judge panel on Monday said it disagreed.

“We cannot agree and reject this latest attempt to control speech by recasting it as conduct,” the panel said. “Florida may be quite right about the nature of the ideas she is targeting. And it may not be so. Either way, the merits of these views will be decided in the screaming marketplace of ideas, not in a code book or courtroom.

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Protect Democracy, the nonprofit representing Florida businesses challenging the law, celebrated Monday’s decision as a victory 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 disagree with what is being expressed,” Protect Democracy attorney Shalini Goel Agarwal said in a statement.

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

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