Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed into law what he has branded the “Stop WOKE Act,” which restricts how race is discussed in schools, colleges and workplaces, and sparked a nationwide debate over censorship, critical race theory and diversity training.
The Legislature approved the measure in March along mostly party-line votes. The bill (HB 7) prohibits any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin.
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It also blocks businesses from using diversity practices or training that could make employees feel guilty for similar reasons.
“We believe an important component of freedom in the state of Florida is the freedom from having oppressive ideologies imposed upon you without your consent,” DeSantis said. “Whether it be in the classroom or in the workplace. And we decided to do something about it.”
Speaking at a charter school in Hialeah Gardens, DeSantis railed against “pernicious ideologies” like critical race theory, which examines the role discrimination has played in shaping American history and modern society.
He also blistered the media, “elites,” “leftists,” Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, and finally, Walt Disney Co.
DeSantis enhanced the attack on Disney
DeSantis enhanced the attack on Disney by also signing into law two measures approved Thursday by state lawmakers aimed at punishing the company after it criticized a controversial new Florida law prohibiting classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity for younger age school children.
“I think it’s interesting that you’re getting involved in Florida, protecting kindergarteners from going to school without having transgender ideology in their curriculum, but you don’t say anything about the Communist Party of China with all the atrocities they’re committing there, and you’re making a fortune with them,” DeSantis said in directing remarks at Disney.
Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott, said American companies, specifically Disney, are being hypocritical for criticizing DeSantis for opposing “woke” policies but continuing to do business with countries like China, which is accused of committing genocide against the Uyghur Muslims.
The Disney bills threaten the future of the company’s self-governing authority in Florida and also make it subject to social media regulations DeSantis pushed into law last year, but which has been blocked by a federal judge as unconstitutional and is now being appealed.
The “Stop Woke Act” signed by the governor takes a different approach to civil rights protections, which are commonly seen as protecting minorities and women. Instead, Florida’s new law, called an “act related to individual freedom,” is seen by opponents as shielding whites and men in discussions from being blamed for historic wrongs.
The measure – the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act – responds to a drumbeat from conservative media that has condemned critical race theory.
Opponents worry the law is vague, will chill race education in the state, and open a door to frivolous litigation targeting businesses and school boards.
While acknowledging Friday that critical race theory is not taught in Florida schools, DeSantis claimed its "principles" are entering into class instruction, especially in how history and social science is taught. He got the Florida Board of Education last year to specifically ban its use in schools.
Almost simultaneous with the governor signing the measure, a lawsuit was filed in Tallahassee federal court challenging the constitutionality of the new race discussion limits.
Filed by a Jacksonville law firm, the lawsuit's plaintiffs include a substitute teacher from Tallahassee, a high school teacher from Manatee County, a professor at the University of Central Florida and a young girl enrolling in kindergarten in the fall.
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During legislative debate earlier Democrats, particularly Black lawmakers, said the legislation is intended to diminish the inequities faced by minorities in this country, largely because it could make white students feel uncomfortable.
“I’m tired of being knocked down and told how to feel about it,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, adding that the bill was a “classic example of a false equivalency.”
“We keep talking about not offending the feelings of the listener,” Driskell said. “What about the feelings of the speaker? What about my rights, my story? Moving toward a more inclusive society is a good thing.”
DeSantis, though, views the race discussions he’s outlawing in Florida as a threat.
“We are not going to use your tax dollars to teach our kids to hate this country or to hate each other,” he told the crowd in Hialeah Gardens.
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During the legislative session, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, also said critics’ fears were misplaced.
“This bill makes it clear that in Florida, people will be judged as individuals, by their words, their character and their actions, and not by their race, their sex or their national origin,” Avila said. “We must focus on building character, and not assigning blame.”
During legislative debate, Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, ridiculed the race restrictions: “Why is it bad to be awake, to be conscious of things, aware of what’s happening and aware of what’s happened?
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and state Sen. Annette Taddeo, both running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, slammed DeSantis and Republicans.
Fried called the “Stop Woke Act” a “vile attempt to erase our country’s history, censor businesses and schools, and whitewash history. “It’s unconstitutional and racist,” she said in a statement. “This is just more state-sanctioned hatred and censorship coming from Governor DeSantis and Republicans in the Legislature.”
Taddeo said DeSantis's "latest culture war attack will flat out censor essential American history and impact the way individuals, families, and businesses are allowed to even discuss race.”
Friday’s bill signings were a punctuation mark to a week where a proposed congressional redistricting map endorsed by DeSantis was called racist by a Black minister speaking at a rally on the steps of the historic Old Capitol.
The plan likely increases the number of Republican seats in Congress from Florida while possibly cutting in half the seats now held by Black Democrats.
Several Black state House members also staged a sit-in Thursday and attempted to halt a final vote on the plan, which drew a lawsuit from voters groups Friday, the same day DeSantis signed the measure.
DeSantis pushed back in Hialeah Gardens against unnamed critics who he said were claiming the new law would stop the teaching of such events as the Holocaust, slavery or the troubled Reconstruction period following the Civil War.
“We’ll teach all of that, because it’s real history and it’s important,” DeSantis said. “But what we will not do is let people distort history to serve their current ideological goals.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Ron DeSantis signs Stop WOKE Act to restrict race discussions in Florida