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Florida seeks go-ahead on race instruction law

Gov. Ron DeSantis stands infront of a podium with his hands spread out, addressing the crowd. Behind him stands a group of children and adults with signs that read "STOP WOKE" and have "CRT" crossed out, meaning no critical race theory.
Daniel A. Varela
Miami Herald
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing HB7, "individual freedom," also dubbed the "stop WOKE" bill during a news conference at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens on Friday, April 22, 2022.

Attorneys for the state have asked a federal appeals court to put on hold a judge’s ruling that blocked a controversial new law restricting the way race-related concepts can be taught in universities.

The attorneys Monday asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker’s Nov. 17 decision to issue a preliminary injunction against the law. The stay, if granted, would allow the restrictions to be in effect while a battle about the law’s constitutionality continues.

The law has been a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who dubbed it the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or “Stop WOKE Act.” It lists a series of race-related concepts and says it would constitute discrimination if students are subjected to instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels” them to believe the concepts.

In issuing the injunction, Walker said the law violated First Amendment rights and described it as “positively dystopian.”

But the state filed a notice of appeal last week and followed with Monday’s 56-page motion for a stay of the injunction. The motion disputed that the law violates speech rights, saying that all “the act does is prohibit the state’s educators from endorsing the enumerated concepts while teaching the state’s curriculum, in the state’s classrooms, on the state’s time, in return for a state paycheck.”

“(The) implications of the district court’s decision are startling, for it anoints individual professors as universities unto themselves, at liberty under the First Amendment to indoctrinate college students in whatever views they please, no matter how contrary to the university’s curriculum or how noxious to the people of Florida,” the motion said. “In short, the district court’s First Amendment ruling was wrong, and this (11th Circuit) Court is likely to reverse it.”

The law, which also placed restrictions on how race-related concepts can be addressed in workplace training, has drawn at least four legal challenges. Walker in September issued an injunction against the workplace-training portion of the law — spurring a pending state appeal to the Atlanta-based appeals court.

The education portion of the law includes eight concepts prohibited from being taught in classrooms.

As an example, the law labels instruction discriminatory if students are led to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

As another example, the law seeks to prohibit instruction that would cause students to “feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

In his 139-page ruling, Walker wrote that the law is “antithetical to academic freedom and has cast a leaden pall of orthodoxy over Florida’s state universities.”

“Neither the state of Florida’s authority to regulate public school curriculum, nor its interest in preventing race or sex discrimination can support its weight. Nor does the First Amendment tolerate it,” he wrote.

But in Monday’s motion for a stay, the state’s attorneys cited a 1991 appeals-court decision that they argued gives the state “final say” in disagreements about course content.

“The constitutional question in this case … boils down to this: Who decides what is, and is not, to be taught in Florida’s college classrooms — individual professors or their employer, the state, in prescribing by law the content requirements and standards that govern public universities in setting their course curricula?” the motion said.

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