On Mar. 4, 2024, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling that parts of Florida’s House Bill 7, dubbed the Individual Freedom Act or the “Stop WOKE Act”, are unconstitutional and infringe on an employer’s free speech rights. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Individual Freedom Act in 2022 as part of his campaign against what he terms “woke ideology.”

The Act was intended to prevent teachings or mandatory workplace activities that suggest a person is privileged or oppressed based on their race, color, sex or national origin. It states that employers cannot subject an individual “as a condition of employment” to “training, instruction, or any other required activity that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” a certain set of beliefs. It goes on to list the rejected ideas, all of which relate to race, color, sex or national origin.

Citizens can enforce the Act through lawsuits they initiate or through regulatory action. Either way, violations can result in steep penalties: back pay, compensatory damages, and up to $100,000 in punitive damages, plus attorney’s fees—on top of injunctive relief.

Legal challenges and arguments

Opponents of the Act argued it curtails employers’ free speech rights because it restricts company training programs stressing diversity, inclusion, elimination of bias, and prevention of workplace harassment. Florida justified the Act as an antidiscrimination law. According to the state’s briefs, affirming these prohibited concepts constitutes “hostile speech,” and forcing them on employees amounts to “invidious discrimination” that the state can prohibit.

District court injunction

In August 2022, the district court issued an injunction that blocked Florida from enforcing parts of the law that prohibit mandatory workplace activities and trainings suggesting a person’s privilege or oppression based on their race, color, sex, or national origin.

The district court noted that, while the First Amendment typically prevents the state from limiting, or “burdening” free speech, “in Florida, the First Amendment apparently bars private actors from burdening speech, while the state may burden speech freely.” Ultimately, the district court held that the Act “discriminates on the basis of viewpoint in violation of the First Amendment and is impermissibly vague in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Eleventh Circuit decision

The Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling and held that “[b]y limiting its restrictions to a list of ideas designated as offensive, the Act targets speech based on its content. And, by barring only speech that endorses any of those ideas, it penalizes certain viewpoints – the greatest First Amendment sin.”