The First Amendment Prevails: Florida’s Stop WOKE Act Unconstitutional

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In March 2022, Florida enacted the politically charged Individual Freedom Act, informally known as the STOP WOKE (Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act. Less than two years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit blocked the enforcement of the Act on the grounds it violates employers’ right to free speech. This decision directly impacts employers in the Eleventh Circuit and will have a ripple effect on employers nationally.

 

How did the Individual Freedom Act (Stop WOKE Act) affect employers?

The Act attempted to prevent employers from mandating training or meetings for employees which “promote” a “certain set of beliefs” the state “found offensive” and discriminatory. There are eight prohibited beliefs each relating to race, color, sex, and national origin. According to the Act, employers must not teach the following:

  1. Members of one race, color, sex, or national origin are morally superior to members of another race, color, sex, or national origin.
  2. An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  3. An individual’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.
  4. Members of one race, color, sex, or national origin cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect due to race, color, sex, or national origin.
  5. An individual, based on his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.
  6. An individual, based on his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.
  7. An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, and were committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.
  8. Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, sex, or national origin to oppress members of another race, color, sex, or national origin.

Employers still had the ability to mandate employees attend sessions that either refute these concepts or present them in an “objective manner without endorsement.” This dictates how an employer deals with its employees and is particularly limiting in how employers address discrimination training. Employers who failed to adhere to the law were liable for “serious financial penalties—back pay, compensatory damages, and up to $100,000 in punitive damages, plus attorney’s fees—on top of injunctive relief.”

 

The Ruling – Honeyfund.com Inc. v. Governor [2024]

In March 2024, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit served an injunction preventing enforcement of the Act. Despite the state insisting the Act banned conduct rather than speech, the court ruled the Act unlawfully violated the First Amendment’s right of free speech by barring speech based on its content and penalizing certain viewpoints. While certain categories of speech such as “obscenity, fighting words, incitement, and the like” are traditionally unprotected, the court pointed out that “new categories of unprotected speech may not be added to the list by a legislature that concludes certain speech is too harmful to be tolerated.” Florida is keen to appeal against the decision.

 

What does this mean for employers?

Regardless of one’s opinions on the matter, this can be viewed positively from an employer’s standpoint. Employers in the private sector can control speech in the workplace, and this ruling confirms their autonomy will continue. Whether or not the rest of the country will follow suit remains to be seen.

This case, in tandem with the US Supreme Court’s ruling to ban race based affirmative action, signals today’s intense political climate is likely to continue to impact how employer diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are approached. Employers should continue to review their DEI initiatives, ensuring they are in line with the latest precedents.

Brody and Associates regularly advises management on complying with the latest local, state and federal employment laws.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560

 

 

 

Updated: Jun 27, 2024

About the author
Robert Brody of Brody and Associates, LLC is a member of XPX Tri-State

you have an employee-related issue including court and agency cases, governmental personnel-related audits, or you need counsel on addressing any employee-related issue.