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Stop W.O.K.E. Act is keeping some Florida professors from teaching

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act into law in 2022, restricting how race can be taught in Florida schools and erasing some classes.
Posted at 9:17 PM, Feb 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-27 21:17:47-05

What often draws students and faculty to universities is the opportunity to engage in the exchange of ideas new and old. But in 2022, that exchange was limited in Florida — home to more than 60 colleges and universities.

The state's legislature passed House Bill 7, a law barring teaching that any ethnic group is inherently racist or should feel guilt over past racial injustices by others. The law also limits discussion that social status is determined by race or gender.

For Jonathan Cox — an untenured assistant professor of sociology at Florida's largest four-year institution, the University of Central Florida — the state's Stop W.O.K.E. Act meant dropping two of his popular courses last fall: Race and Social Media, and Race and Ethnicity.

A federal judge issued a temporary injunction late last year blocking the law from being implemented in colleges and universities, but professors like Cox fear their teachings are nonetheless a target.

That's because Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — who objects to certain race-based diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as well as critical race theory — says teaching approaches like Cox's were designed to "tear at the fabric" of American society.

"We are also going to eliminate all the DEI and CRT bureaucracies in the state of Florida. No funding, and that will wither on the vine," DeSantis said.

CRT is a framework often taught at the college level that examines the ways in which race and racism intersect with our laws and social institutions. 

"Based these courses on empirical evidence, right — that has been around for decades, right? So it's really well known and well-established research," Cox said.

Cox's courses incorporated topics like racial ideology, colorblindness, systemic racism and the ways racism plays out in social media and technology.

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Daniel Golden, an investigative reporter for ProPublica who has written extensively on American education, says the legislation had a real chilling effect on university campuses. 

"I see this as a very dangerous time for academic freedom in America," Golden said. "That made me think about this whole issue of untenured professors and the predicament they're in when they're in a red state and a public university and they want to teach about the true history of this country, and they want to talk about systemic racism, but they might pay a price with their jobs."

Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney at Freedom for Individual Rights and Expression, represents a faculty member, a student and a student organization at the University of South Florida in a lawsuit challenging the Stop W.O.K.E. Act's higher education provisions.

"The First Amendment is about freedom of speech, and in the higher education context — so public universities, which are an entity of the government — they're bound by the First Amendment, which limits the government's ability to censor certain viewpoints," Steinbaugh said. "But if you start going after faculty members for offensive ideas, then no idea is safe."

Scripps News reached out to the University of Central Florida about the cancellation of Cox's classes on race. The university had no comment.

"I think it is incumbent upon administrators at universities when they're being asked to do something unconstitutional to stand up against that, and Florida's universities are not doing that," Steinbaugh said.

This semester, Cox's course load is much lighter than usual; he's only teaching one class online, Education and Social Achievement. But despite the uncertainty, he says he plans to bring back the courses he canceled on race this summer and fall.

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