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Ron DeSantis’ anti-woke law suffers another legal smackdown

Ron DeSantis' “Stop WOKE Act” looked ridiculous when it passed. A pair of court rulings on the Florida law makes it look even worse now.


Ahead of his re-election campaign, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s GOP-led Legislature were quite busy. As regular readers know, Republicans in the Sunshine State made it harder for Floridians to vote. And made it easier to ban books from school libraries and classrooms. And approved a new abortion ban. And created restrictions on the right to peaceably protest.

But for DeSantis, the feather in his cap was a measure called the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act” — or the “Stop WOKE Act” — that was intended to use the power of state government to target ideas about race and history that Republicans didn’t like.

The campaign to ban critical race theory was so wide-reaching that the GOP governor even tried to regulate private businesses’ training sessions with their own private-sector employees — because DeSantis is pro-business, just so long as job creators are avoiding speech that makes him uncomfortable.

In August, a federal judge halted the provisions in the Stop WOKE Act related to regulating private speech. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker marveled, “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.”

On Thursday, as Politico reported, the same judge went further.

A federal judge on Thursday halted a key piece of the “Stop-WOKE” Act touted by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, blocking state officials from enforcing what he called a “positively dystopian” policy restricting how lessons on race and gender can be taught in colleges and universities.

While August’s ruling took aim at DeSantis’ efforts to regulate private speech, Thursday’s decision focused on Republican efforts to regulate what scholars can say in higher education.

“’It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,’ and the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom,’” Walker wrote, citing George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

The jurist added, “The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints,” wrote Walker. “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian.”

The state will, of course, appeal the district court ruling. But as DeSantis eyes a national campaign with the far-right backing, Republicans should probably keep in mind that the governor’s apparent hostility toward the First Amendment isn’t faring well under legal scrutiny.