Florida’s Stop WOKE Act Strips Academic Freedoms. Here’s How College Courses Could Change.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act imposes the strictest rules on college coursework in the U.S. Here's how some of the state's professors are (or aren't) adjusting.
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Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • With the Stop WOKE Act in effect, college students in Florida are entering a different landscape this fall.
  • Opponents of the bill call it an educational gag order that forbids discussion of certain topics.
  • The ACLU of Florida is currently leading a lawsuit against the state over the law, which it says unconstitutionally infringes on academic freedoms.

Students at Florida's colleges and universities are walking into a new era of higher education this fall.

But, to the educators BestColleges spoke with, these students are worse off for it.

Florida has been a centerpiece of the so-called "culture wars" that have taken over school board meetings nationwide over the past two years. Gov. Ron DeSantis elevated that battle to higher education institutions in a way that other states haven't with the signing of the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act.

“No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race,” DeSantis said in a statement after signing the bill into law. “In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces. There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.”

While many states have implemented "divisive topics" laws recently to restrict what and how K-12 educators may teach, Stop WOKE takes this one step further by extending those restrictions to colleges and universities.

Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney for the watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), told BestColleges that Florida is the only such state with this far-reaching of a law.

Generally, it's been common for states to take a hands-off approach to college coursework since students are presumably adults capable of choosing their own study paths, he said. The Stop WOKE Act throws that precedent out the window.

"Whether you are in kindergarten or your final year as a graduate student," Steinbaugh said, "the law says certain concepts are not up for discussion."

The law went into effect July 1, making the fall semester the first real test of how it will work in practice. Those in the higher education community are bracing for a fight since many professors and other faculty have already voiced intentions to carry on their teachings as they did before.

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), told BestColleges that, as the leader of the state's largest faculty union, he's ready to back those professors up.

"What we want to do is make sure that — despite the efforts of DeSantis — faculty are not silenced and students are not deprived of the highest level of education," he said.

Summer Prep for Stop WOKE Act

The Stop WOKE Act aims to limit how and what faculty can teach students.

However, the law's vagueness makes dissecting it rather difficult. Steinbaugh said some faculty come away thinking it bans all discussions of race, gender, and sexuality, but that's not the case.

The crux of the law, at least in how it will likely be applied in practice, comes with the following phrase: "An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race."

The law's text adds that discussion of topics surrounding race, gender, and sexuality should be done "in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts."

The text does not, however, provide specific examples, and the Florida Legislature failed to provide actionable guardrails for professors and instructors to follow to stay in compliance, Steinbaugh said. The uncertainty leaves faculty worried over repercussions, and some have opted to cut materials from their coursework just in case.

"It's really difficult even for me to be able to identify what can and cannot be taught under this law," Steinbaugh said.

The University of Florida (UF) issued guidance to faculty in early May to help them prepare for the Stop WOKE Act before it became law. The university's 20-slide presentation offered a recommendation that "facts and theories are presented along with different interpretations and viewpoints."

Some longtime professors at UF took issue with this guidance.

Jeffrey Adler, a history professor at UF with a focus on the role race has played in U.S. history, told BestColleges that presenting different viewpoints is not always the best practice for his courses or any history course. For example, should a professor discussing the Holocaust include the viewpoints of Holocaust deniers? Should he include pro-eugenics viewpoints in his courses?

"I can't do my job when I'm not allowed to use the language that is conventional for these topics," Adler said. "It doesn't meet my standard … to avoid topics of racial disparity or social justice."

Louise Newman, another history professor at UF with a focus on gender and race, said she finds problematic the language in the Stop WOKE Act that states students shouldn't be made to feel guilty. Faculty cannot control the way subject material will make a student feel.

"To expect students not to feel uncomfortable in a classroom is unrealistic; to attribute this discomfort to how the faculty is teaching is naïve," she said. "One does not have to feel as if one's ancestors caused a problem to feel responsible and part of a society that needs to be reformed."

Adler added that students have come to him many times throughout his career to tell him they may disagree with things he's said, which is legitimate. However, the Stop WOKE Act gives students the option to circumvent that discussion and file a complaint with a professor's department head instead.

Complaints will be reviewed by the state. Schools found to be in violation of the Stop WOKE Act risk losing performance-based funding from the state. In UF's case, the Gainesville Sun reports, it could cost the university up to $100 million annually, so it's no wonder the very first slide in its guidance to faculty highlights the monetary cost.

Additionally, Steinbaugh said universities may terminate faculty found to have violated the law.

All this leaves professors with a choice: comply, or carry on as is.

For Adler, the choice is easy. He said he doesn't plan to self-censor anything about his courses this fall semester.

Neither does Newman.

"This isn't going to change how I go about teaching," she told BestColleges.

UFF offered guidance to union members on the different stances they can take this semester. Adler and Newman will take the "high-risk" route, which means they won't change anything about their courses, even if it may conflict with the new law.

The "low-risk" option recommends faculty avoid the topics outlined in the Stop WOKE Act, while the "reasonable risk" option recommends they only present empirical research and evidence when discussing these topics.

Emily McCann, a labor relations specialist at UFF, said during a recent webinar for Florida faculty that the union cannot encourage instructors to violate the Stop WOKE Act. She stressed that taking the "high-risk" route presents potential dangers, but it is a "supported risk."

It's a risk many legal experts feel may be protected.

Jerry Edwards is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida currently leading a lawsuit against the state over the Stop WOKE Act. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has a long history of upholding academic freedom.

The immediate goal is to get a preliminary injunction to stop the portion of the law that affects higher education institutions. The ultimate goal is to have the law struck down as unconstitutional.

College Profs Face Different Risks in Classroom

While professors like Adler and Newman plan to take the high-risk route this semester, they acknowledge that not all faculty can afford to do so.

Adler said he has the privilege of being a white, male, and tenured professor, so he feels safe in his current position. He knows there's a strong possibility that he may be reported to school administrators for broaching topics deemed out of bounds by the law — such as implicit racial biases — but his position should protect him from the worst effects of any complaint.

"Please let some dean or provost call me in and say, ‘You said that there are racial disparities in sentencing and that makes white people feel guilty,'" he mused.

His younger, nontenured colleagues, on the other hand, had a much more difficult choice to make before the fall semester. They may be subjected to yearly reviews, which means their contracts could more easily be revoked or terminated if they are found to have violated the law.

Newman, who is also tenured and doesn't plan to alter her courses, believes nontenured faculty will likely avoid certain topics out of fear — understandably so.

"I think my practice is already well within the statute, but the fear I have is the general atmosphere has younger colleagues on edge. They are more vulnerable," she said. "The real danger is that they might self-censor."

Adler teaches lecture-style classes, which means he oversees teaching assistants (TAs) who lead small group discussions once per week with students. While he encourages those TAs, who are graduate students, to blame him for any subject matter students may find uncomfortable, he understands that's easier said than done.

"Some graduate students are feeling anxious because they feel the stakes are higher for them," he said. He worries they may hold back.

Self-censorship started even before the fall semester. The University of Central Florida made national headlines in mid-July when it removed anti-racism statements across campus and on school webpages.

According to The Washington Post, one such statement from the school's philosophy department website read: "We acknowledge the key place of the university as a site of struggle for social justice and are committed to addressing the problem of anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and all forms of implicit and explicit racism in our professions, wherever we find it, even if in our own department."

Steinbaugh of FIRE said self-censorship like this occurs in other states, too, even though they have less strict laws impacting higher education.

For example, he pointed to a community college in Oklahoma that canceled a summer class on race in the U.S. because of a state law similar to other divisive topics laws across the U.S. that did not impact higher education.

In Florida, where the culture wars run hot, the situation is even riskier for faculty.

Edwards of the ACLU said some professors decided not to join the ongoing lawsuit against the state for fear of "being retaliated against by a vindictive governor."

Edwards added that rumors have added to the trepidation.

One such rumor he heard from worried professors — and a rumor Adler also said he heard — was that anti-critical race theory (CRT) activist groups may enroll students into courses that touch on race, gender, and sexuality. Those students would then record lectures with the hopes of catching a professor in violation of the Stop WOKE Act to report them.

While Adler doubts the rumor is true, he said even the fact that it's in the conversation is an added stressor.

A Law Based on Cartoonish Views of College

Another point of frustration among professors is that the Stop WOKE Act aims to erase a version of college classrooms that never existed.

For example, the law forbids any instructor from subjecting students to any teaching that "espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels" the student to believe that "members of one race, color, national origin, or sex are morally superior to members of another."

Adler said he's never heard of anything remotely close to this happening in any college classroom or anyone even alleging a professor did this. Instead, it's likely another attempt to intimidate faculty into self-censoring discussions of race, gender, and sexuality.

However, these are discussions many students are eager to have.

Johana Dauphin is an undergraduate student at Florida State University (FSU) and a plaintiff in the ACLU case against the state. She's currently enrolled in two classes that will revolve around discussions of race and ethnicity, leaving her worried that the Stop WOKE Act means she won't get the full experience she was promised.

"I have no way of guaranteeing that the course I signed up for is going to be the same as it was before [the Stop WOKE Act] was a thing," she told BestColleges.

She said that would not only negatively impact the quality of her education, but it would also diminish her lived experience.

As a Black woman, she said she has experienced instances of implicit bias throughout her life. However, Stop WOKE specifically lists discussions of this topic in its text, so she's worried professors may avoid it altogether.

"The fact that we have to gaslight ourselves when we're talking about our lived experiences to not use the terms that make the most sense is pretty absurd," she said. "I feel like the way things in the [law] are worded is very much pandering to [DeSantis'] base."

Assigned readings for one class already include articles about implicit bias. This gives Dauphin hope that Stop WOKE isn't having too strong of an impact thus far.

Still, she questions whether her professor will have to frame the discussion as something theoretical, despite her lived experiences telling her that it's more than a theory.

Framing discussions and additional material is something Newman has also had to consider in her courses. While she feels her teaching methods should already be in compliance, she worries her assigned materials may be interpreted as an "endorsement" of ideas and could lead to complaints.

She teaches a long-running course "History by Hollywood: Race and Representation in the Western" in which she uses films to show the depiction of different races through different decades. If the actions of characters in those films promote concepts outlawed in the Stop WOKE Act, will she be held liable?

"I don't think this law will be enforced this way … but you just don't know until it happens," Newman said. "This is the central germane question."

Stop WOKE Act Over(t)ly Vague

A common sentiment among those who have followed the Stop WOKE Act from the beginning is that there is still a lot unknown about the law.

Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America who has followed many divisive topics laws, previously told BestColleges that legislators purposefully write these laws vaguely. The goal is to chill speech by convincing instructors to overcorrect and cut more than they need to.

That vagueness may be the law's downfall, however.

The ACLU's recent lawsuit against the law argues the law is unconstitutional because it is too difficult to decipher what is and isn't allowed in college classrooms.

"[Faculty] can't follow a law that nobody can understand," Edwards of the ACLU said. It can lead to a situation where instructors break the law without realizing.

Leah Watson, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program, added that another recent court decision gives her some optimism the group's suit can succeed with this argument.

Florida Judge Mark Walker issued a preliminary injunction on Aug. 18 blocking the part of the law aimed at private businesses. In the ruling, the judge stated that the language was overly vague, Watson said.

Ripple Effects From Stopping "Wokeness"

No matter how the Stop WOKE Act affects college classrooms this fall, the law promises to have lasting effects if allowed to remain in effect.

For one, Newman of UF said the law's impact on high school students will force her to change how she teaches her courses. Higher education professors enjoy academic freedom protections, but that doesn't extend to K-12 teachers, so they will likely be forced to comply with the law in a way university instructors won't.

That means Newman's future students won't be having the discussions at a high school level that prepare them for her courses on race, gender, and sexuality.

"If students come in with less knowledge," she said, "I have to address the topic differently."

She's always had to adjust the ways she teaches over the years, Newman said. However, those changes usually are because of cultural shifts, not legislative ones.

Dauphin of FSU worries Stop WOKE will lead to larger cultural effects, too.

She said the law sets back discussions on race at all levels. The way the law is worded, she said, paints a picture that the Stop WOKE Act itself is progressive in advancing race relations. But, in reality, she believes it seeks to portray anti-racism ideologies as a "conspiracy theory for anti-whiteness."

"I don't see how censorship is going to help us understand each other better," Dauphin said. "[Stop WOKE] is anti-anti-racism."

Legal Challenges With Big Implications for Higher Ed

As classes resume, multiple lawsuits will serve as the next battlegrounds for the Stop WOKE Act.

Besides the ACLU suit filed Aug. 18, another group of litigators filed Falls v DeSantis earlier in the summer. That case included a professor from the University of Central Florida (UCF), two K-12 teachers, a diversity and inclusion officer, and a soon-to-be kindergartner. That suit also sought a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the law.

Judge Walker, the same judge overseeing the ACLU case, decided not to grant a preliminary injunction for the part of the law impacting K-12 instruction and the employer provisions. He has yet to make a ruling on the portion involving the UCF professor, meaning a preliminary injunction on that front is still possible.

Meanwhile, the ACLU lawsuit is still in its early stages.

Watson of the ACLU said she could not give a definitive timeline for the case, as that's up to the court's discretion. However, she noted that the successful Honeyfund case involving employer provisions took about six weeks between filing the motion for an injunction and Judge Walker granting it.

Additionally, there's no guarantee that even if Walker granted the ACLU's motion that it would block all parts of the law affecting higher education.

The Stop WOKE Act includes eight prohibited concepts, she said. A judge can choose to block all eight concepts on the count of vagueness or viewpoint discrimination, or a judge can choose to block only a portion of the eight. Continued briefings and a potential hearing will help Walker decide whether to block any or all of the law.

"We are hopeful that we can obtain an injunction that would stop the implementation of the law altogether," Watson said.

Edwards added that these court battles are important beyond Florida.

Divisive topics bills have sprung up across the country that promise to impact college classrooms. So, a court decision upholding academic freedom could be seen as a positive sign for future lawsuits when these other laws are inevitably challenged.

"It sends a message to people in other states that says this is unconstitutional, so you shouldn't pass [similar] laws because they'll get struck down, too," Edwards said.

Future battles promise to extend beyond the courts.

Gothard of UFF said the political stage will be an important front in the union's fight to end Stop WOKE and restore academic freedom rights. While he said the union is nonpartisan, he made it clear that Republican Gov. DeSantis is now public enemy No. 1.

"It is frustrating, but the root cause of this is Ron DeSantis is a dictator wannabe," Gothard said. "He is trying to control everything."

He said he plans to mobilize UFF in an effort to unseat DeSantis during the upcoming November elections.

"We're in this to fight it all the way," he said. "We have an infection in our state, and we need to get rid of it."