A federal judge flayed a measure supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, likening the court’s decision to Eleven, the kinetic teen seeking to save her hometown from supernatural forces in the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”
In his ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker compared Florida to a “new upside down” — an alternate universe populated by demons and monsters in the blockbuster show — in a ruling stopping enforcement of a new law, dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act” by DeSantis and its supporters.
Walker issued a preliminary injunction Thursday on a portion of the new law that deals with workforce training, citing First Amendment concerns. The measure (HB 7) prohibits school lessons and workplace training that teach inherent bias and ideas related to critical race theory, although it does directly not mention the concept by name. The ruling favors the three businesses that brought the case.
The 44-page document was loaded with legalese and citations to support Walker’s ruling, but kicked off with a riff on the alternate dimension.
“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,” he wrote. “Now, like the heroine in “Stranger Things,” this Court is once again asked to pull Florida back from the upside down.”
The workplace training portion of the law prohibits eight listed race-related concepts, which Walker calls “a naked viewpoint-based regulation on speech that does not pass strict scrutiny.”
“If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case,” Walker wrote in his ruling. “But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents. Because, without justification, the (law) attacks ideas.”
Walker illustrates two scenarios to show the potential overreach of the law, which defendants insisted “does nothing more than ban race discrimination in employment.” Walker writes that the defense “makes hollow” truly discriminatory, hostile work environments by equating such experiences with diversity trainings, “trivializing the freedom protected” by Title VII to “suggest that the two are the same.”
“Telling your employees that concepts such as ‘normal’ or ‘professional’ are imbued with historically based racial biases is not — and it pains this Court to have to say this — the same as trapping Black employees in a room while a woman in a gorilla suit puts on a retaliatory, racially inflammatory performance the day before a holiday celebrating the end of slavery. Rather, it is speech protected by the First Amendment,” Walker wrote.
The plaintiffs of the lawsuit include Primo Tampa, LLC, a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream franchisee; Honeyfund.com, Inc., a Clearwater-based wedding registry tech company; and Chevara Orrin and her company, Collective Concepts, LLC, which provides diversity, equity and inclusion training to employers.
The ruling comes as educators challenge the school-related portion of the act, which provides strict provisions on how race-related concepts can be taught in schools. A group of university professors and a university student also filed a federal lawsuit challenging the legislation on Thursday.
Critics, mainly Democrats, have argued the legislation amounts to censoring teachers and businesses that are trying to stamp out intolerance, hate and ignorance. They also contend it will chill the speech of educators teaching about African American history, LGBTQ history and more.
In response to the ruling, the Florida For All coalition issued a statement saying: “Once again, Gov. DeSantis’ blatant attacks on the First Amendment have been ruled unconstitutional in court. Every Floridian deserves the freedom to work hard and provide for their families without facing discrimination and harassment because of who they are, where they come from, or what they look like.”