Florida's Stop WOKE Act Must Be Rejected by the Court

AAUP president Irene Mulvey issued the following statement on the recent filing by lawyers for the state of Florida defending the "Stop WOKE Act."

Last April, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act” into law, restricting the way race-related concepts can be taught in classrooms and workplace trainings in the state. Predictably, multiple lawsuits followed. The most recent filing by lawyers for the state of Florida, defending the law and asserting that faculty members’ curricula and in-class instruction at public universities should be considered “government speech,” requires a response.

The state of Florida has a wildly misinformed concept of academic freedom. As widely understood in the academic community, academic freedom is essential to allow for the unfettered search for knowledge and does not exist for the benefit of the individual faculty member but for the sake of education in service to the greater good. Scholars determine what to teach and how to teach it, bound by professional standards and disciplinary norms enforced by peer-review processes and evaluations.

In contrast, lawyers for the state of Florida argue that “a public university’s curriculum is set by the university in accordance with the strictures and guidance of the state’s elected officials.” This describes authoritarian control of education similar to what exists in North Korea, Iran, or Russia. Government-mandated curriculum in higher education has no place in a democracy.

Muddling free speech with the academic freedom required in higher education, the state of Florida asserts that individual professors making their own decisions on curriculum without interference by administrators or the state  “would be a recipe for educational chaos, not excellence.” The idea that the only alternative to government-mandated curriculum is a faculty free-for-all is absurd. Academia has been self-governing for decades—promoting and protecting academic freedom in service of the search for truth—and the result is one of the strongest systems of higher education in the world.

DeSantis claims the Stop WOKE Act is needed to combat indoctrination (without presenting any evidence that indoctrination is taking place). Yet, the law imposes state-approved indoctrination by substituting a partisan agenda for the judgment of scholars. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. In America, educators, not legislators, decide what materials to use in the classroom; it is extremely dangerous for politicians to impose and exercise control over curricula and instruction in order to advance ideological aims.

The Stop WOKE Act forces instructors to become mouthpieces for politicians in service of thwarting antiracist progress. It is educational gag orders like this that are the real threat to American higher education and must be rejected by the court. The stakes for the future of academic freedom in Florida and beyond could not be higher.

Publication Date: 
Thursday, October 13, 2022