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Florida takes aim at a lawsuit over its new workplace training restrictions

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds up a child welfare bill he signed April 12, 2022 at Miami Dade College in Miami.
Wilfredo Lee
/
AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds up a child welfare bill he signed April 12, 2022 at Miami Dade College in Miami.

It puts restrictions on how race and sexism can be addressed in public school classrooms and workplaces. The businesses say it violates their free speech rights.

Disputing that restrictions on race-related workplace training violate the First Amendment, the state is asking a federal judge to toss out a challenge by businesses to a law that Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act.”

Attorneys for the state last week filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit and to prevent a preliminary injunction. The law, which took effect July 1, targets how race-related concepts are addressed in workplace training and school classrooms, with DeSantis touting it as preventing “indoctrination.”

The state’s motions contended that the law does not violate the First Amendment because it only bars businesses from requiring employees to take part in training programs that use the targeted concepts.

“They (the law’s restrictions) leave employers free to engage in, promote and pay for any speech they wish, including the invidiously biased speech targeted by the act, and they leave willing employees free to hear and to join in it,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “All they prevent is the use of the employer’s coercive economic leverage over its employees to make them an offer they can’t refuse: Listen to the company’s speech or clear out your desk.”

Businesses filed the lawsuit June 22 and subsequently requested a preliminary injunction against the law, which they said violates their ability to discuss issues such as racism and implicit bias with employees.

“The act silences speech aimed at combating racism and sexism — speech that is vital to the plaintiffs’ operation of their businesses,” the June 30 preliminary-injunction request said. “The governor, and the Florida Legislature acting at his behest, has repeatedly sought to punish companies who have engaged in speech that displeases him, in flagrant violation of the First Amendment. Because Governor DeSantis is not a monarch, but rather a democratically elected official, the Stop WOKE Act cannot stand.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker has scheduled an Aug. 8 hearing on the preliminary-injunction request.

The plaintiffs in the case are Primo Tampa, LLC, a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream franchisee; Honeyfund.com, Inc., a Clearwater-based technology company that provides wedding registries; and Chevara Orrin and her company, Collective Concepts, LLC. Orrin and her company provide consulting and training to employers about issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion.

The law (HB 7), which DeSantis signed April 22, spurred fierce debates before passing during this year’s legislative session. DeSantis called it the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act.

The law lists eight race-related concepts and says that a required training program or other activity that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such individual (an employee) to believe any of the following concepts constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin.”

As an example of the concepts, the law targets compelling employees to believe that an “individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”

The state’s attorneys wrote in one of the court documents filed Thursday that what “the act does — all it does — is prevent employers from conscripting their employees, against their will, into the audience as a condition of their employment.”

“What it does not protect is the ability of employers to use their economic leverage over their workers to force them, on pain of losing their jobs or other sanction, to listen to such views,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “That is conduct, not speech, and the First Amendment has nothing to say about it.”

The lawsuit, however, said the plaintiffs believe it is important that training and other activities address issues such as diversity and structural racism in workplaces. It said, for example, it is unclear how Honeyfund can move forward with training scheduled later this year and be consistent with the new law.

“Without such DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) trainings, plaintiff Honeyfund would risk losing substantial benefits to its businesses, including improving collaboration and productivity, attracting more diverse candidates, increasing employee engagement and connecting with diverse clientele,” the lawsuit said. “Honeyfund is best positioned to know what practices are best for its business.”

A separate case challenging parts of the law dealing with the education system also is pending in federal court.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.