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The Southern Poverty Law Center Files Amicus Brief in Lawsuit Against Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. Act

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has filed an amicus brief in Falls v. DeSantis, a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s HB 7 (commonly called the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act”), signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 21. The law, which takes effect July 1, aims to restrict educating children and others about America’s legacy of racism in schools and workplaces.

The plaintiffs in the case, including educators and parents of a rising kindergartner, contend that HB 7 is a gross infringement on their fundamental rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression and access to information under the First Amendment. The SPLC filed the amicus brief in support of the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Florida.

The amicus brief on behalf of Learning for Justice and the Florida Freedom to Read Project, documents “the ways HB 7 will and has already interfered with the ability of students to obtain true and accurate information about the history of their society.”

Learning for Justice, a project of the SPLC, was established in 1991 to provide free, age-appropriate classroom resources and professional development tools to foster respect and understanding for differences among students in grades K-12. The program also helps educators navigate important but challenging conversations with students about race and other topics to prepare them to thrive in a democratic society.

The brief notes that far from indoctrinating students into a so-called “woke agenda,” educators often struggle to teach about the history and origins of racism, resulting in a generation of high school graduates who lack basic information about the history of their country, according to a study by Learning For Justice. HB 7 would deepen this learning gap as educators, understandably fearful of public threats to police them, seek to avoid the penalties embedded in the law for teaching about prohibited topics such as the factual disparities in wealth, education and housing for Black people.

“Teaching honestly about our country’s history and its legacy is not a right or left-wing proposition. Common sense, basic educational principles and codes of ethics for educators demand it,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director of SPLC’s children’s rights practice group. “Our brief on behalf of groups dedicated to the freedom to learn and to receive an equitable education makes clear that this law will have a chilling effect on our children’s education about critical aspects of our society. We join the plaintiffs in Falls v. DeSantis in urging the court to block the implementation of this harmful and unconstitutional law."

While most schools in Florida have not signaled how they will respond to HB 7, some indicate a broad interpretation of the law. The Florida Board of Education’s specifications for 2022-2023 social studies materials have interpreted HB 7 expansively, prohibiting “social justice” and “culturally responsive teaching.” The Florida Freedom to Read Project discovered through public records requests that even before these specifications were released, Orange County Schools were already considering whether to interpret the law in this way.

“As a parent and educator group dedicated to protecting the right of Florida students to access information and ideas, the wording and intent of HB7 has us very concerned,” said Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project. “Through our research and in our circles, we have found early indicators that this law contradicts Florida educational standards and will chill speech (and therefore learning) about racism in America.”

A copy of the brief is available here. For more information, also review Protect Democracy’s separate brief on behalf of Division 15 of the American Psychological Association. It cites extensive research that explicitly teaching students about racism and diversity has manifold benefits for students—including increased academic success and engagement with school—and that omitting such instruction hurts these outcomes.