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In a Win for Free Speech & Free Enterprise, Federal Court Suspends State Law Seeking to Censor Private Companies' Speech on Race and Gender

Tallahassee, FL — Today, in a major victory for free speech, a federal judge in Florida suspended enforcement of the employer provisions of HB 7, the so-called Stop WOKE Act, holding that it is likely unconstitutional and that plaintiffs, represented by Protect Democracy and Ropes & Gray, LLC,  are likely to prevail in their litigation against Florida officials. The preliminary injunction order can be found here.

“Florida’s Legislators may well find Plaintiffs’ speech repugnant. But under our constitutional scheme, the remedy for repugnant speech is more speech, not enforced silence.. . . If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case. But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents, wrote Chief Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

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. 

“This vague law 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,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, counsel at Protect Democracy. “We look forward to proceeding to trial, winning, and seeing this law permanently overturned. It is a direct attack on American free speech values as well as on free enterprise in Florida.”

“It is a fundamental value in our democracy that the government cannot punish speech that it dislikes, and it is especially important to protect speech that advocates for groups historically excluded from power,” said Ropes & Gray partner Doug Hallward-Driemeier. “We are grateful that the court reaffirmed that value in today’s ruling.”

To combat what Defendant Gov. Ron DeSantis has termed “corporate wokeness,” HB7 prevents employers from requiring their employees to hear speech that promotes any of eight broad concepts related to race, sex, or national origin. The law’s vaguely worded prohibitions sweep in concepts that are central to current, mainstream diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings—concepts like implicit bias and male privilege—conducted by many Fortune 500 companies.

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.

Protect Democracy partnered with the law firm Ropes & Gray to represent the plaintiffs. For more information about our challenges to censorship of speech on race and gender, visit: https://protectdemocracy.org/project/challenging-censorship-of-speech-on-race-and-gender/

Statements:

“Companies have been grappling with how to address structural racism in our society, but this law tied their hands to prevent honest conversations with employees,” said Plaintiff Chevara Orrin, an award-winning DEI consultant. “I am grateful that today’s injunction will enable my clients to resume these important conversations to create a healthy work environment.”

“Diversity in the workplace is demonstrably good for business, so we need to be able to educate employees about the threats to diversity. Diversity trainings often address concepts like systemic racism, unconscious bias, and privilege,” Honeyfund.com, Inc. CEO Sara Margulis said. “I am thankful that the court’s order will enable Honeyfund to bring diversity training on these topics to all of our employees.”

“Educating staff about systemic racism, implicit bias, and privilege is critical to the mission of our company,” 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. “I appreciate the court’s recognition that we should be free to communicate our values to our staff.”