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Appeals Court: Florida’s ‘Stop Woke Act’ Commits ‘Greatest First Amendment Sin’

group of employees listening during meeting

A federal appeals court on March 4 upheld a lower court’s ruling that part of Florida’s Individual Freedom Act, better known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” is unconstitutional.

The three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law, which limits the concepts employers can discuss in mandatory corporate diversity training, infringes on companies’ free speech rights.

“By limiting its restrictions to a list of ideas designated as offensive, the act targets speech based on its content,” Judge Britt C. Grant wrote in the opinion. “And by barring only speech that endorses any of those ideas, it penalizes certain viewpoints—the greatest First Amendment sin.”

The Stop WOKE Act, signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022, was intended to prevent teachings or mandatory workplace activities that suggest a person is privileged or oppressed based on their race, color, sex or national origin.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker suspended the employer portion of the law, calling the bill's policies “bordering on unintelligible” and compared parts of it to being in a parallel dimension called “the upside-down” from the fictional TV show “Stranger Things.” Florida companies that have 15 or more employees could have faced civil lawsuits if they were found to have violated the law.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision comes as many conservative politicians are publicly condemning “woke ideology” and nonprofit groups are suing employers to disrupt corporate inclusion, equity and diversity efforts.

Spokesperson for DeSantis Reacts to News

Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for DeSantis, said in a statement that they disagree with the ruling, interpreting the court’s opinion as allowing employers to “require employees to be taught—as a condition of employment—that one race is morally superior to another race.”

“The First Amendment protects no such thing,” Redfern wrote. “And the state of Florida should have every right to protect Floridians from racially hostile workplaces.”


Organization That Challenged Law Celebrates Ruling

Protect Democracy, the organization representing the Florida businesses that challenged the Stop Woke Act, celebrated the appeals court’s ruling, calling it “a win for free speech in the workplace.”

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

She added that banning employers from engaging in speech that 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.”

(Protect Democracy)

Court Says Law Would Ban ‘Wide Variety of Political Viewpoints’

While the purpose of the Stop Woke Act is to combat discrimination, the Appeals Court stated that the law’s “breadth and scope would doom it,” adding that, “Banning speech on a wide variety of political topics is bad; banning speech on a wide variety of political viewpoints is worse.”


Are Companies Today Too Woke?

Many companies fear being perceived as “too woke,” especially in advance of the 2024 election cycle. The recent Supreme Court ruling that rolls back affirmative action efforts for college admissions only adds more anxiety to the question of how companies should address so-called “woke” programs.

(SHRM Online)


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