Florida’s "Stop WOKE" Act Sabotages Higher Ed

Today, the AAUP filed an amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in support of Florida faculty who are challenging the state’s “Stop WOKE” Act. That law, passed in 2022 and formally known as the “Individual Freedom Act,” prohibits professors at Florida’s public universities from expressing certain disfavored viewpoints while teaching on topics including racial and sexual discrimination and injustice. The AAUP’s brief in the case Pernell v. Lamb argues that the law violates the First Amendment and threatens to destroy academic freedom, sabotage higher education, and undermine democracy.

In 2022, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed the Stop WOKE Act into law, prohibiting faculty at the state’s public colleges and universities from engaging in “instruction” that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels . . . student[s] or employee[s] to believe” certain concepts involving racial and sexual discrimination and injustice. The “Stop WOKE Act” is one of the most egregious attempts ever undertaken by politicians to restrict the freedom of faculty to teach, and of students to learn, in the university classroom. By selectively censoring specific viewpoints about racial and sexual inequities that Florida’s current politicians disfavor—while at the same time permitting the expression of opposing viewpoints—the law seeks to suppress genuine discussions about vitally important issues currently facing this country. With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, several professors and a university student filed suit against the law for violating the First Amendment and other constitutional provisions. In a compelling and strongly worded decision issued last November, a federal district court granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting Florida state officials from enforcing key provisions of the statute. DeSantis administration officials then appealed to the Eleventh Circuit. 

The AAUP’s amicus brief, which urges the Eleventh Circuit to affirm the district court’s preliminary injunction, consists of two main arguments:

  • The Stop WOKE Act violates the First Amendment. If the law is allowed to go into effect, it will destroy academic freedom, sabotage higher education, and undermine democracy.
  • The state of Florida’s draconian claim that “classroom instruction in public universities is government speech” is utterly flawed. As the brief explains, far from allowing state governments to coopt public universities to serve as their partisan mouthpieces, legal precedents require adherence to academic freedom. 

The AAUP’s brief urges the Eleventh Circuit to join other federal courts of appeals in asserting academic freedom in scholarship and teaching “as a constitutional value.” Educational gag orders should not be imposed on professors by the state. Teaching in colleges and universities has long been recognized as being off-limits to the sort of censorship and domination the DeSantis administration is attempting to impose with the Stop WOKE Act.

Learn more or download the brief here

Publication Date: 
Friday, June 23, 2023