Florida law curbing 'woke' workplace bias training blocked by judge

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Judge says law violates employers' free-speech rights
  • Law bans promotion of progressive theories on race, sex

(Reuters) - A Florida law that prohibits employers from promoting various progressive concepts in workplace anti-bias trainings was blocked on Thursday by a federal judge, who said its broad ban on speech is unconstitutional.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee said in a 44-page decision that Florida's Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop WOKE Act, violates employers' free-speech rights because it "attacks ideas, not conduct."

The IFA, which was signed into law in April, makes it illegal to require workers to attend trainings that promote eight different concepts, including that individuals are inherently racist or sexist and that people should feel guilty about the actions of members of the same race or sex.

Walker granted a bid by two small businesses and a consultant who conducts workplace training to temporarily block those provisions of the law pending the outcome of their lawsuit filed in June.

The decision came as the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday filed a legal challenge in the same court against the law's separate restrictions on discussions of race and sex in college classrooms.

A spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, said the decision is being reviewed. The plaintiffs' lawyers at Ropes & Gray and nonprofit Protect Democracy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The IFA is one of the latest in a series of laws adopted by Republican-led states to discourage companies from taking stances on gun control, climate change, diversity and other social issues.

Florida argued that its law simply barred mandatory attendance at anti-bias trainings and did not regulate speech at all. And any infringement on employers' free-speech rights is justified by the state's interest in ensuring workers are not made a captive audience to controversial views, the state said.

But Walker on Thursday said the law clearly does regulate speech because it only targets the endorsement of specific concepts and not all mandatory trainings.

"If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case," the judge wrote. "But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents."

The case is Honeyfund.com Inc v. DeSantis, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, No. 4:22-cv-227.

For the plaintiffs: Amy Longo of Ropes & Gray; John Langford of Protect Democracy

For the state: Tim Newhall of the Florida Attorney General's office

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.