In a critical move, a U.S. appeals court panel in Atlanta is examining a 2022 Florida law named the “Stop WOKE Act” (officially known as the Individual Freedom Act). This law bans mandatory workplace diversity training that promotes certain concepts, bringing its validity into question concerning the free speech rights of employers. The legislation has been temporarily halted due to a pair of injunctions issued last year by a federal district court that believed parts of the law could be unconstitutional.
Specifics of the Law
Florida’s legislation, part of a wider effort by some states to limit teachings associated with critical race theory, not only targeted educational institutions but also extended to workplace diversity training in the private sector. This sparked controversy, with opponents suggesting that the law was too vague and potentially costly to comply with. The prohibited teachings include:
- Asserting individuals are inherently racist or sexist.
- A person’s privilege or oppression is solely based on their race or sex.
- One should feel guilty for past actions of others of the same race or sex.
Representing Florida, John Ohlendorf asserted that the initial blockage of the law was misplaced, stressing that employers still possess the freedom to promote any viewpoint. They are simply restricted from making these pieces of training obligatory. However, Circuit Judge Charles Wilson countered by distinguishing between regulations on speech and conduct, observing that penalties are applied only when specific ideas are addressed. Shalini Agarwal of Protect Democracy, representing the plaintiffs, emphasized the vagueness of the law, making it challenging for employers to differentiate between promoting a concept and merely explaining it. This ambiguity, she said, “results in a chill on employer speech.” She further argued that the government is attempting to enforce a viewpoint-based restriction, which would infringe upon the First Amendment.
Reactions from the Business Community
The law has garnered mixed reactions from businesses. Sara Margulis, CEO and co-founder of Honeyfund.com, a Florida-based wedding gift registry business that contested the law, highlighted the importance of diversity training.”We have a diverse client base, being in the wedding industry, and felt the employees should have training on issues such as systemic racism and implicit bias,” she said, emphasizing the need to “better understand the lived experience of our customers.”
Bloomberg Law reports suggest that there’s widespread uncertainty about the interpretation and implementation of this law among the business community.
The Road Ahead
The Eleventh Circuit judges set to review the appeal comprise Charles R. Wilson, appointed by Bill Clinton, and Britt C. Grant and Andrew L. Brasher, both appointed by Donald Trump. It remains unclear how they will lean in their judgment.
The state’s defense relies on the notion that the law targets conduct (making attendance at such training sessions mandatory) rather than speech. Referring to past court rulings, the state’s attorneys argued that governments can assess speech to determine conduct that might breach the law.
On the other hand, plaintiffs hold that the restrictions are unequivocally targeting certain forms of speech that don’t resonate with Florida’s Republican leadership.
The case underscores a broader debate on the balance between free speech rights and government intervention in workplace policies. As courts grapple with these concerns, the outcome will undoubtedly have significant implications for businesses, employees, and First Amendment rights in the future.