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Federal court keeps Florida 'Stop WOKE Act' on hold

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in November issued a preliminary injunction against the law, finding that it violated First Amendment rights.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal appeals court Thursday kept on hold a controversial Florida law that restricts the way race-related concepts can be taught in universities.

Attorneys for the state went to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in November issued a preliminary injunction against the law, finding that it violated First Amendment rights.

The state asked the Atlanta-based appeals court for a stay of the injunction — which would have allowed the law’s restrictions to be in effect while the legal battle played out. But a three-judge panel of the appeals court issued a two-paragraph order Thursday denying the state’s request for a stay.

The appeals court did not explain its decision. 

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 described the law as “positively dystopian.” The law also placed restrictions on how race-related concepts can be addressed in workplace training. 

Walker in September issued an injunction against the workplace-training portion of the law, and an appeal of that ruling also is pending.

The lawsuit against the Stop W.O.K.E Act was filed by USF History Professor Adriana Novoa and USF student San Rechek last fall. 

Novoa said she's fighting against educational censorship. It's something she knows about firsthand after growing up under dictatorships in Argentina.

"I believe that is a serious violation of freedom of speech," said Novoa. "With this precedent, every time there's a new governor, we need to teach differently. Just imagine that." 

Novoa said the Stop W.O.K.E. Act would stifle classroom discussion and create fear among educators. 

"There's no topic that I will be able to teach that is not intertwined with gender or with race or with ethnicity or with sexuality," said Novoa. 

While this legal battle continues to unfold, Novoa is optimistic about her case, particularly after today's ruling. 

"I was delighted," said Novoa. "I was concerned that the injunction will stop protecting us and then they will implement that awful law."

The law's supporters argue it protects individual freedoms and prevents discrimination by banning concepts like critical race theory. 

"We're not going to be teaching these kids to hate each other or hate this country, not on my watch," DeSantis said at a rally at the end of 2022. 

It's a debate that now seems poised to reach a courtroom for oral arguments this summer.

“The Court did not rule on the merits of our appeal," the governor's office's Deputy Press Secretary Jeremy Redfern said in a statement. "The appeal is ongoing, and we remain confident that the law is constitutional.”

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