If you believe Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis would be a less dangerous presidential candidate than former president Donald Trump, take a moment to consider the recent ruling striking down DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act.” That opinion — as well as other rulings against his attempts to inhibit dissent — makes clear that DeSantis is just as willing as Trump to embrace the GOP’s authoritarian element and use state power to punish his enemies.
To recap, the Stop WOKE Act — also perversely known as the Individual Freedom Act — is the Orwellian scheme that DeSantis signed into law earlier this year to muzzle the candid discussion of race and racism in classrooms and the workplace. As U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker explains in his opinion, “The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints.” He dryly continued, “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves.”
DeSantis, in attempting to curtail the discussion of political positions of which he disapproves, followed in a long line of authoritarians who have attempted to paint dissent as dangerous and, therefore, unprotected.
The law, for example, bars discussion of the concept that a person “by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.” During oral arguments, when asked if this would bar professors from supporting affirmative action in classroom settings, attorneys for the state government answered, “Your Honor, yes.”
Walker cited that admission, finding:
Thus, Defendants assert the idea of affirmative action is so “repugnant” that instructors can no longer express approval of affirmative action as an idea worthy of merit during class instruction. … What does this mean in practical terms? Assuming the University of Florida Levin College of Law decided to invite Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to speak to a class of law students, she would be unable to offer this poignant reflection about her own lived experience, because it endorses affirmative action.
The law so blatantly violates the concept of free speech that one wonders if remedial constitutional education should be a requirement for Florida officeholders.
Walker tore into DeSantis and the GOP legislature, holding that the law “is antithetical to academic freedom and has cast a leaden pall of orthodoxy over Florida’s state universities.” He declined to mince words: “In this case, the State of Florida lays the cornerstone of its own Ministry of Truth under the guise of the Individual Freedom Act, declaring which viewpoints shall be orthodox and which shall be verboten in its university classrooms,” he wrote. “The First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark.”
That is the essence of authoritarianism. DeSantis’s willingness to back such a monstrous violation of free expression should send up warning flags about his commitment to uphold the Constitution.
Walker is the same judge who struck down another DeSantis assault on the First Amendment — his vague anti-riot law to quell demonstrations. In that opinion, Walker recalled, “In 1956 and 1961, Florida’s anti-riot laws were used to suppress activities threatening the state’s Jim Crow status quo.” DeSantis apparently considered such efforts commendable.
“What’s past is prologue,” Walker wrote. “Now this Court is faced with a new definition of ‘riot’ — one that the Florida Legislature created following a summer of nationwide protest for racial justice, against police violence and the murder of George Floyd and many other people of color, and in support of the powerful statement that Black lives matter.” He added, “The question before this Court is whether the new definition is constitutional.” Spoiler alert: It’s not, just as Jim Crow-era laws to prevent civil rights demonstrations were not constitutional.
As the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida explained, the anti-riot law “risks criminalizing peaceful protest and shields those who injure or kill protesters — for example, by ramming their vehicles into protesters — from civil penalties.” DeSantis all but admitted as such when he boasted the measure was “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country” and vowed that “a ton of bricks [will] rain down on” those who violate it.
DeSantis seems to have no fondness for the basic rights our Constitution confers on Americans. Instead, he delights in using state power to demonstrate his contempt for the expression of views he dislikes. This forms the core of his political brand, underscored by his “don’t say gay” law, his statute banning “critical race theory” in schools and his firing of a county prosecutor who criticized his abortion policies. DeSantis has also regularly flexed his power as governor: excluding media from events, taking public proceedings behind closed doors (including the selection of the University of Florida’s president) and exacting revenge on supposedly woke corporations such as Disney.
DeSantis’s contempt for dissent and his crackdown on critics should not be discounted. This is the profile of a constitutional ignoramus, a bully and a strongman. Voters should be forewarned.
Image Credits: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during a debate in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Oct. 24. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)