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Florida is cleared of violating a court order over the 'Stop WOKE Act'

Ron DeSantis
John Locher
/
Associated Press
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has not violated a court order that blocked parts of a controversial law restricting how race-related concepts can be taught in higher education, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Plaintiffs challenging the 2022 law, which DeSantis dubbed the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or “Stop WOKE Act,” this week accused the administration of failing to comply with a preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the law.

The plaintiffs’ request centered on a Dec. 28 memo issued by Chris Spencer, head of DeSantis’ Office of Policy and Budget, directing state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues to require colleges and universities to “provide a comprehensive list of all staff, programs and campus activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory.” Spencer gave the education leaders until Friday to respond.

In a “motion to compel” filed Wednesday, the plaintiffs argued that “compliance with” Spencer’s memo “would violate the preliminary injunction order.” The motion also sought “further clarifying” from Walker that the order “enjoins defendants from taking any actions pursuant to” Spencer’s memo.

But, siding with the state, Walker on Thursday said the DeSantis administration hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Although this court would not hesitate to compel compliance with its preliminary injunction, this court finds there has been no violation of the injunction at this time,” he wrote.

The judge’s decision came the same day the state filed a response disputing the plaintiffs’ allegations.

The question posed by the plaintiffs’ motion rested on whether “providing basic information about state universities diversity, equity, and inclusion (‘DEI’) programs” is “a ‘step’ in the ‘enforcement’ of the law” or its implementing regulation, wrote Charles Cooper, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Cooper & Kirk, PLLC firm who represents the state.

“The answer to that question is clear: gathering and transmitting information is not, in law or in common sense, the ‘enforcement’ of anything,” Cooper argued in the 13-page response.

The law provides two enforcement mechanisms for noncompliance. Universities could fire instructors who violate the law, and the state university system’s Board of Governors could withhold what is known as performance funding from schools that “fail to correct instruction that violates” the law, the defendants’ response noted.

“But merely gathering and transmitting information is not ‘enforcement,’” it said.

Professors and students from state universities challenged the law in a pair of lawsuits, arguing that it has created confusion for faculty and is an unconstitutional infringement of First Amendment rights.

In a Nov. 17 order, Walker called the law --- titled the “Individual Freedom” bill by the Republican-controlled Legislature --- “positively dystopian” and prohibited imposing sanctions.

The state appealed Walker’s preliminary injunction and has asked the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow the restrictions to be in effect while the legal battle continues. The request remains pending.

In the response filed Thursday, the state’s lawyers argued that the information sought through Spencer’s memo is part of the governor’s annual budgeting process. Much of the information about schools’ diversion, equity and inclusion programs is available on their websites, according to the response.

“Nothing in this court’s command that defendants must refrain from enforcing the Individual Freedom Act immunizes state universities from providing the governor’s office with basic information about the programs and activities the state is funding,” the response said.

The law, which has sparked several lawsuits, also imposes restrictions on race-related instruction in public schools and in training for businesses. Walker also has issued a preliminary injunction against the business restrictions.

DeSantis, who cruised to re-election in November and is widely viewed as a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, has railed against “woke” ideology throughout his first term as governor. He made the “Stop WOKE” law one of his top priorities last year and continues to target “trendy ideology” on campuses, including during his Jan. 3 inaugural address.

Also on Thursday, House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, requested information from state colleges and universities about diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programs. Renner sent letters to school presidents with lists of information that the House wants.

In a prepared statement late Thursday, Renner said he looks “forward to working with my colleagues in the legislature to establish proper guardrails that ensure these institutions provide our students with an inclusive, well-rounded education that prepares them for the future without promoting an aggressively ideological agenda under the guise of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Renner’s letter and the legal wrangling over Spencer’s memo came as Walker presided over a trial in a challenge to the constitutionality of a 2021 state law requiring colleges and universities to survey students and staff members about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on campus.

The law required the State Board of Education and the university system’s Board of Governors, to select or create “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid” questionnaires to weigh the “extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” on campuses. The surveys also are supposed to gauge how free students and staff feel to express ideas and are required to be conducted annually.

But plaintiffs, who include the United Faculty of Florida union and individual teachers and students, contend the surveys have the effect of chilling classroom speech.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.