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Gov. Ron DeSantis' war on 'woke' appears to be losing steam in Florida

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Jared C. Tilton
Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign against ideas he considers "woke" has run into some roadblocks.

A court settlement this week blunted his Parental Rights in Education Act, a law that critics call Don't Say Gay. And earlier this month, a federal court blocked another key measure that DeSantis introduced in 2021 and called the Stop WOKE Act. It marked the beginning of DeSantis' efforts to reshape how Floridians view and teach issues involving race and gender identity.

The Stop WOKE Act banned instruction in schools or mandatory training in workplaces that suggest a person is privileged or oppressed because of their race, sex or national origin. Other bills and regulations soon followed, targeting programs to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. For decades, DEI programs as they're known have worked to promote fair treatment of underrepresented groups.

DeSantis believes DEI programs that focus on issues such as race and sexual orientation are unconstitutional and discriminatory. "They call it equity," he said when introducing the Stop WOKE Act. "Just understand, when you hear equity used, that is just an ability for people to smuggle in their ideology."

Politically, the Stop WOKE Act, which was later renamed the Individual Freedom Act was a winner for DeSantis. It helped mobilize conservatives in Florida, helping him win reelection in 2022 by a wide margin. Legally though, it ran into problems.

A federal judge said by restricting people's speech, the law was "positively dystopian." Last year, an appeals court ruled it couldn't apply to colleges and universities. That same court recently ruled it couldn't be enforced against businesses, either. "The court resoundingly rejected the STOP Woke Act as applied to employers and said it was in plain violation of the First Amendment," says attorney Shalini Goel Agarwal of Protect Democracy, who represented the businesses that filed the lawsuit.

DeSantis' administration says it disagrees with the decision and is considering an appeal. But Agarwal notes that four federal judges, including two appointed by former President Donald Trump, have now blocked the law. "I would hope that resounding rejection will have some weight with the state in them thinking about whether they want to pursue it further," she says.

Other courts also have ruled against a number of DeSantis' conservative initiatives. A federal judge temporarily blocked a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Another judge put a law on hold that would punish businesses that allow children into drag shows. Courts have struck down congressional maps and voter registration restrictions championed by DeSantis.

But he's also had victories. Judges have upheld the Parental Rights in Education Act. Gay rights groups say this week's settlement with the state will make sure the law won't be used to discriminate against LGBTQ families.

People protested in March 2022, after the passage of Florida's Parental Rights in Education bill, also dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by LGBTQ activists.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Getty Images
People protested in March 2022, after the passage of Florida's Parental Rights in Education bill, also dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by LGBTQ activists.

The impact of DeSantis' campaign might be greatest on Florida colleges and universities. Backed by Republican lawmakers, he's banned all DEI programs from state schools.

DeSantis told a conservative group recently that he wants to stop the "indoctrination" of students at colleges and universities. "DEI is really insidious," he said. "First of all, it's very divisive because it tries to divvy people up based on superficial characteristics. But it also serves to supplant merit in favor of this agenda."

The University of Florida recently eliminated all of its full-time DEI positions, the latest school to comply with the new regulations. The university's faculty union condemned the move, saying it ignores Florida's history of discrimination. Union President Meera Sitharam, who is also a professor of computer science, says DeSantis has signed laws weakening faculty tenure and has put pressure on schools to promote conservative viewpoints. His administration recently removed sociology as a core course at state schools.

She calls it an attack on academic freedom. "They see faculty as the people who are responsible for the quote-unquote indoctrination of the next generation," Sitharam says. "But really, the target is the next generation."

But in Florida's just-completed legislative session, there were signs that even among Republican lawmakers, enthusiasm is waning for DeSantis' anti-woke agenda. A proposal he backed to ban the removal of Confederate monuments failed, as did another to ban rainbow flags and others with a "political viewpoint" from school and government buildings.

"He still is trying to pursue these culture wars," says Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the Democratic leader in Florida's House. "The thing is, I think Floridians have lost a taste for them because we have more pressing issues, like property insurance rates that are the highest in the nation."

DeSantis is in his second term as governor and can't run again. But state lawmakers are up for re-election in November, another reason support appears to be weakening for DeSantis' conservative agenda.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.

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