Last week, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis struck a blow to freedom of speech protections in his state in the latest salvo in the culture war: a new law to combat “woke” education.
DeSantis stood on a stage filled with children holding anti-critical race theory signs to sign the Stop WOKE Act, which passed the state legislature last month.
The new law, formally named the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, restricts school teachers, university professors and employers who are providing education or training that may make people feel “discomfort” or “guilt” about their race, gender or sexuality.
The law is purposefully vague and confusing. But it’s obviously aimed at educators teaching students about race and history and at employers implementing diversity, equality and inclusion training.
The bill prohibits instruction that suggests that individuals should feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions … committed in the past by other members of the same race.”
The bill also bans schools and workplaces from teaching that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or “privileged or oppressed … determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.”
There’s an obvious target audience here: white people. DeSantis has spent considerable time railing against critical race theory, an academic theory that Republicans have misconstrued to mean teaching about race and history. The phrasing implies that white people could sue or punish others for teaching about America’s racial history, simply because it makes them feel guilty to be the same race as the oppressors.
But how does Florida — or private citizens — plan on enforcing a law that relies on vague wording about race and gender?
“I think we’re all as confused as you are,” Jerry Edwards, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told HuffPost. “That’s very much the point of the law.”
DeSantis, who is considered a Republican presidential favorite for 2024, has gone scorched-earth in his fight against marginalized people. Along with fear-mongering about critical race theory, he recently signed legislation that prohibits talking about gender or sexuality at public schools — called the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its critics — and another bill that targets Disney World for speaking out against the anti-LGBTQ measure.
“What the governor, what the legislature is trying to do is win a culture war,” said Jesse Wilkison, an attorney with the law firm that helped plaintiffs sue Florida over the Stop WOKE law.
As with the “Don’t Say Gay” law, Stop WOKE-related lawsuits aren’t necessary for the legislation to have its desired silencing effect.
The way the law is worded has left Florida teachers and employers wondering if students or employees can sue them for saying something they disagree with. It’s almost comical how brazenly the law attacks free speech.
As much as Republicans, especially DeSantis, pontificate about free speech and “cancel” culture, the law will have a chilling effect on people across the state.
“It dissuades teachers and professors from taking on these controversial subjects,” Edwards said.
Theoretically, a student could sue their teacher for talking about the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade if that discussion makes them feel psychological distress. But would anyone take such a lawsuit seriously?
“You can sue because you’re offended, but the question is … will it be successful?” Edwards says.
It’s easy to see which kinds of topics, like affirmative action or the civil rights movement, could cause a teacher to self-censor and which kind of workplace training programs could come under fire, too. But it’s still difficult to predict who will file these kinds of lawsuits or how the government plans on punishing those who run afoul of the new laws.
What is clear is that actual successful lawsuits don’t need to happen for the culture warriors to declare a victory against freedom of speech in Florida. Now, teachers and employers will think twice before teaching courses on racism or holding trainings on diversity and inclusion.
“The ‘Stop WOKE’ Act is designed to further exclude marginalized groups from necessary conversations in our schools, communities, and workplaces and to further limit individuals who deserve to exist freely, proudly, and to have their stories shared,” Cathryn M. Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.
Even if no one is ever directly prosecuted for causing psychological distress to a student or employee, the end result is still the same: Certain groups will be silenced. The culture war continues to target anyone and anything that doesn’t adhere to strict conservative ideology.