DeSantis proposes legislation to let parents sue teachers who tell the truth about U.S. history
Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced the Stop WOKE Act, which is presented as an effort to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) and "woke indoctrination" in Florida schools. In reality, the legislation would allow parents to sue teachers who provide accurate information about the founding of the United States.
The Stop WOKE Act will, according to DeSantis, codify "the Florida Department of Education’s prohibition on teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools." That regulation, which was put in place in June, does ban "the teaching of Critical Race Theory." But the regulation goes much further. It prohibits teachers from defining "American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence."
In other words, teachers will be required by law to lie to students. At America's creation, the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence were not "universal." On the contrary, most African-Americans were considered the property of white men and had no rights. This situation would persist for more than a century. White women and Native Americans were also not afforded these "universal rights." Candidly discussing these facts with students is not CRT, but is still prohibited under Florida regulations.
DeSantis' new proposal would take things even further, giving students and parents a "private right of action" allowing them to sue any teacher who does not tell them that America was created "largely on universal principles." The plaintiffs in these new lawsuits "collect attorneys’ fees" and damages from teachers if they win. The structure appears "to be modeled after a Texas abortion bill" which allows citizens to sue anyone they believe may have helped a woman violate the state's abortion ban. In Florida, teachers will be forced to choose between lying to their students about the country's founding or facing costly litigation.
DeSantis was clear that the purpose of the legislation was to impose "fear" in teachers. "A lot of times these people will fear lawsuits more than a fine from the state Department of Education because when you do a lawsuit you get discovery," DeSantis said.
The regulation also prohibits the use of any "material from the 1619 Project," a project published by the New York Times that explores the origins of slavery in the United States and how its legacy shapes the present. The project, which won the Pulitzer Prize, contains hundreds of footnotes, including references to essential historical texts. If the Stop WOKE Act becomes law, a Florida teacher citing any of these materials in school — or doing anything to center the experience of Black people in America — could be sued.
"Teachers should have the freedom to teach honest, complete facts about historical events like slavery and civil rights without being censored by politicians," the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, said in a statement.
The STOP Woke Act is a collaboration between DeSantis, a top contender for the 2024 Republican nomination, and Christopher Rufo, a right-wing operative who has spoken openly about exploiting CRT for political purposes. Immediately after DeSantis announced his intention to introduce the STOP Woke Act, he included the initiative in a political fundraising solicitation.
DeSantis provides no evidence that Critical Race Theory has "infiltrated" Florida schools
DeSantis claims that Critical Race Theory is such an acute problem in Florida schools that students need to be empowered to sue their teachers. But DeSantis' press conference announcing the STOP Woke Act did not include a single example of CRT being taught in Florida schools.
DeSantis' press release about the STOP Woke Act contains seven articles, all written by Rufo or promoting Rufo's "reporting." These articles allegedly contain examples of CRT in schools but none of them are about Florida.
Moreover, the articles about other states are highly misleading. For example, one of the articles, based on Rufo's tweets, claims "Arizona Department of Education created an 'equity' toolkit claiming that babies show the first signs of racism at three months old." The material, which is not for classroom use, does not make that claim. It "actually cites studies, conducted by researchers in the U.S., the United Kingdom and China, which found that three month olds of all ethnicities prefer to look at the face of someone from their own ethnic group."
There are thousands of schools that educate K-12 students in Florida. It is likely that some material produced by these schools is ill-conceived or offensive. But DeSantis and Rufo have produced nothing to justify terrorizing all teachers with the threat of litigation.
Restricting private speech
While DeSantis' efforts to distort instruction of U.S. history in K-12 schools may be misguided, the state does have a role in establishing curriculum standards in schools. The Stop WOKE Act goes beyond the educational sphere and would allow "private corporate employees to sue their employers if they receive critical race theory training."
The legislative text has not been introduced so it's unclear exactly what kind of training the bill would ban and when employees could sue. But the idea that DeSantis has the power to enforce his political beliefs on private corporations is dubious.
DeSantis invokes MLK Jr.
During his campaign-style announcement of the Stop WOKE Act, DeSantis quoted Martin Luther King Jr., suggesting that the slain civil rights leader would support his initiative. "You think about what MLK stood for. He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character," DeSantis said.
This is a rhetorical tactic also employed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and former President Donald Trump. Earlier this year, McCarthy said that CRT goes "against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us."
But the idea that King would support efforts to prohibit teachers from candidly discussing the role of slavery in the nation's founding is offensive. It is rejected by his children. King's daughter, Bernice King, said her father "shared his dream that we, his four children, would one day not be judged by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character, he was beckoning people to end racism, not deny its existence." King's son, Martin Luther King III, blasted similar efforts to ban CRT in Texas. "You literally have white women and men who are trying to whitewash, and really dramatically erase, what occurred in the history of our nation, and depriving all our children — that's all children — of knowing what the true facts are, what true history was in our nation," King III said.
In his press conference, DeSantis was joined at the podium by a representative from Moms for Liberty, a dark money group. In Tennessee, a Moms for Liberty leader has filed a complaint arguing that the state's new ban on CRT prohibits second graders from reading a book about King.
Distorting history nationwide
The Stop WOKE Act is part of a larger effort to censor discussions of slavery, racism, and other inconvenient truths about United States history nationwide. According to Rufo, DeSantis "is providing a model for every state in the United States of America."
Many states have already taken action. A December study by PEN America, released just before DeSantis' announcement, found that 66 anti-CRT bills, which it calls "educational gag orders," have been introduced in 26 states. 12 of these measures have already become law.
You can find a full list of the legislation HERE.