The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida recently halted the enforcement of several higher education-related provisions of that state’s “Stop WOKE Act.” This action by a federal judge highlights the pitfalls of trying to extend Florida’s popular movement to define teaching about race and gender for elementary and secondary public schools to higher education.
In September, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the law’s higher-education restrictions. The Stop WOKE Act expands Florida’s anti-discrimination laws to prohibit schools and companies from promoting ideas of race- or sex-based guilt to students and employees. A person should not be made to “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex, or national origin. The law includes higher education instruction, a provision that led to a proposal to link tenure to a professor’s adherence to this law.
Like many laws restricting speech, the Stop WOKE Act sounds commendable, but the provisions at issue here would have the practical effect of making professors worry about their job security and tenure if they even touched on issues of race or gender in class. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, appointed by President Obama, called the law “positively dystopian.”
The law, Judge Walker wrote, “officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints.” Judge Walker even colored his 138-page order with a vivid passage from George Orwell’s 1984 to make his point. The legal basis for the order rests on long-established judicial principles that academic freedom and the First Amendment go together.
“[T]he First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark,” Judge Walker wrote.
While Protect The 1st believes Florida had every right to regulate curricula of early grades in public schools in response to parental guidance, the law goes too far in trying to pass academia-wide restrictions, particularly in private, non-state schools. Public school teachers act on behalf of the state, and there are only so many hours in the school day. The state has a right to prioritize what it believes are the most important, elemental lessons that students should learn.
But professors are not government spokespeople in the sense that public elementary school teachers are. Blanket restrictions on lessons and content, especially at the university level, strike at the very heart of academic freedom. Restrictions that could also chill the speech of professors at private universities or those with tenure expands the possibilities for future state intervention and widens the latitude for unconstitutional legislation.
If you believe there’s a problem with ideological conformity, cancel culture, or “wokeism” in higher education, this approach is not the way to address those concerns. If anything, suppressing speech would create martyrs and only make their speech more popular. If you believe that higher education has become an echo chamber, agitate for more diversity in backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas, but not a gag order.