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Federal Court to Hear Arguments Today That Florida Cannot Censor Private Companies' Speech on Race and Gender

Tallahassee, FL — Today, the Florida companies that have sued to challenge the constitutionality of HB 7, the Stop WOKE Act, will appear in federal court to argue that enforcement of the law should be immediately blocked. Florida’s unique law bars employers from engaging in speech that “advances” certain “concepts” regarding race, sex, or national origin. The hearing will take place at 9 a.m. at the federal courthouse in Tallahassee before Chief Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. It is the first time a court will address these restrictions on employer speech on the merits.

Plaintiffs in the case are Florida honeymoon registry technology company Honeyfund.com and Florida-based Ben & Jerry’s franchisee Primo Tampa, along with workplace diversity consultancy Collective Concepts and its co-founder Chevara Orrin. Their counsel will argue that the Stop WOKE Act violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by prohibiting the expression of viewpoints disfavored by government officials and chilling a wide range of speech in the workplace. Protect Democracy, in partnership with the law firm Ropes & Gray, represents the plaintiffs. The complaint and the briefing relevant to today’s hearing are available here. Afterwards, counsel for the Plaintiffs will be available to discuss the case and the hearing in person and via email and telephone.

To combat what Defendant Gov. Ron DeSantis has termed “corporate wokeness,” the law bars employers from requiring their employees to hear speech that promotes any of eight broad and basic concepts related to race, sex or national origin. These vaguely worded prohibitions sweep in concepts that are central to current, mainstream diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings, such as those conducted by many Fortune 500 companies.

With the law, Florida claims the right to control what private enterprise can say and what employees can hear. The Stop WOKE Act is a speech code that takes a page from the authoritarian playbook. It seeks to censor ideas that challenge government officials’ preferred narrative, muzzle independent institutions, and direct outrage toward disfavored groups. 

It has been criticized by legal experts across the political spectrum, who have said the law flouts well-established Supreme Court precedent and, if upheld by the courts, sets a dangerous precedent for further erosion of freedom of speech. For more information about the lawsuit, click here.

Statements:

“Our First Amendment right to speak and receive facts is what makes our system of self-government work.” said Shalini Agarwal, counsel at Protect Democracy. “In a diverse democracy like ours, it’s particularly damaging for the government to chill conversations about how to create workplaces and businesses that are welcoming to all.”

“The First Amendment right to freedom of expression is an essential protection for those who challenge the status quo.  Florida’s recently enacted Stop WOKE Act is an unconstitutional attempt to silence ideas that are vital to a robust discussion about how to make our society more equitable,” said Ropes & Gray partner Doug Hallward-Driemeier.

“Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, all types of institutions have been grappling with how to address historical and structural racism in our society,” said Plaintiff Chevara Orrin, an award-winning DEI consultant. “Unfortunately, just as employers have begun to engage more deeply with the effects of entrenched systemic racism, this law is intimidating them and blocking them from having serious conversations and acting intentionally to create more equitable workplaces.” 

“Diversity in the workplace is demonstrably good for business, but we all have a lot to learn about how we can become more inclusive of diverse viewpoints. Educating employees about systemic racism, unconscious bias, and privilege are some of the ways we can accomplish that,” Honeyfund.com, Inc. CEO Sara Margulis said. “This law will make it more costly for Honeyfund to administer diversity training and will impose unnecessary legal risk on the business. I’m astonished that Florida is introducing these challenges to private business owners when the state has invested so much in attracting businesses.”

“We train our team members to serve as community leaders and offer true hospitality to our guests. Educating staff about systemic racism, implicit bias, and privilege is a means to that end,” said Antonio McBroom, CEO and franchise developer of Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops in the Tampa Bay Area. Primo Tampa is 100% Black-owned; its shops are the first Black-owned Ben & Jerry’s franchises in Florida. “We are a social justice organization, and ice cream is the platform to achieve it. We exist to grow the collective opportunity for marginalized communities through mentoring, coaching, and leadership development.  This law will force us to dramatically alter our business model, sacrifice our values, and turn away from what has made us successful.  It’ll threaten our very purpose for doing what we do.”

“Targeting the speech of private employers based on the beliefs and preferences of current lawmakers is not something I’d expect to see here in the United States,” said Marcos Daniel Jiménez, who served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida during the George W. Bush administration. “As a Cuban refugee whose family fled a repressive regime, I can tell you that this law erodes fundamental American liberty and our system of free enterprise. Sadly, it moves us one step closer to authoritarian government.”