UCF professor gets OK to challenge Florida’s so-called ‘Stop WOKE Act’

Robert Cassanello is associate professor of history at Orlando school

Gov. DeSantis introduces ‘Stop Woke Act’ to keep ‘critical race theory’ out of classrooms

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal judge Thursday cleared the way for a University of Central Florida professor to continue challenging a new state law that restricts the way race-related concepts can be taught in classrooms.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected arguments by the state that Robert Cassanello, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, did not have legal standing to challenge the law — dubbed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as the “Stop WOKE Act.”

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Cassanello and other plaintiffs, including public-school teachers and a student, filed the lawsuit in April after DeSantis signed the law (HB 7), arguing that it violated First Amendment rights and was unconstitutionally vague.

Attorneys for the state last month filed a motion for summary judgment aimed at ending Cassanello’s claims in the case. Among other things, they contended that Cassanello did not show that he would be harmed by the law, which Republican lawmakers formally titled the “Individual Freedom” act.

But Walker, in a 13-page decision, rejected the state’s arguments that Cassanello lacked standing.

“In short, drawing all reasonable inferences in Dr. Cassanello’s favor, he reasonably believes that the IFA (Individual Freedom act) bars him from providing instruction that he would otherwise provide,” Walker wrote in addressing one of the state’s arguments.

The law, which also seeks to restrict how race-related concepts can be addressed in workplace training, has drawn at least four legal challenges. Walker last month issued a preliminary injunction against the workplace-training part of the law, calling it a “naked viewpoint-based regulation on speech.”

As an example of how the law addresses the education system, part of it labels instruction discriminatory if students are led to believe that they bear “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, national origin or sex.”

As another example, the law seeks to prohibit instruction that would cause students to “feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

The state’s attorneys focused heavily on Cassanello’s testimony during a deposition as they argued he didn’t have standing.

“Dr. Cassanello has made clear that the foundation of his teaching methodology is not to endorse or advocate the arguments and theories in material he assigns, but rather to foster in his students the ‘critical thinking’ skills that will enable them to think for themselves,” the state’s attorneys wrote in a court document. “Because the act prohibits only the endorsement of the prohibited concepts — and expressly permits discussion of them — even if some reading material that Dr. Cassanello assigns expressly endorses one of the eight concepts, his act of assigning the material would clearly not violate the act.”

But Walker took issue with the state’s interpretation of Cassanello’s testimony.

“First, defendants (the state) place too much weight on Dr. Cassanello’s claims that he does not endorse material, and that he fears that others will misconstrue the act of assigning material as endorsing that material,” Walker wrote. “Sure, one could interpret this statement as defendants do; namely, that Dr. Cassanello does not believe that his instruction will violate the IFA, but that some will mistakenly believe that it violates the IFA. But one could just as easily interpret Dr. Cassanello to be saying, ‘I personally do not believe I am endorsing these concepts when I assign them, but within the meaning of the IFA, I would be endorsing these concepts.’ So framed, Dr. Cassanello’s chill is reasonable, and stems from defendants’ enforcement of the IFA.”

Cassanello also is seeking a preliminary injunction to block the law, with the state asking Walker to deny the request. Walker did not rule on that issue Thursday, saying he was taking the state’s arguments “under advisement.”

Walker in June denied a preliminary injunction sought by other plaintiffs in the case. In July, he turned down a state request to dismiss the case.

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About the Author:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.