PEN America supports challenge to DeSantis’ ‘Stop WOKE’ law
Sara Margulis was planning her very first staff trainings in diversity, equity and inclusion when Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis signed the “Stop W.O.K.E.” act into law.
Margulis’ online honeymoon registry Honeyfund allows wedding guests to skip traditional gifts and instead pay for a massage for the bride and groom, or a horseback riding tour, or a night in a beachside bungalow. She got the idea after crowdfunding $5,000 for her dream honeymoon to Fiji. It landed Margulis on “Shark Tank,” and Honeyfund’s traffic skyrocketed so fast, she needed to staff up.
With a business that caters to couples – gay, straight, multi-racial and culturally diverse – and a staff from varied backgrounds, Margulis sought out training for her staff on diversity, equity and inclusion. But she knew the Stop WOKE law would make that a problem.
Now, she’s the lead plaintiff in Honeyfund.com, Inc. v DeSantis, one of several lawsuits claiming the law violates free speech rights. PEN America filed an Amicus brief in the case, saying the law had a “profound chilling effect,” not only on employers like Honeyfund, but on educators across the state.
“The negative ramifications of HB 7 on the free expression rights of Floridians cannot be overstated,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America Washington and free expression programs. “The bill’s provisions affect the state’s students, educators, and administrators from kindergarten through college, curtailing their freedom to teach, explain, discuss, or access information on a wide range of topics–rights enshrined by the First Amendment.”
Stop WOKE doesn’t just apply to Florida businesses – it extends to all public education and state agencies. Among other things, the law prohibits educators and employers from discussing advantages or disadvantages based on race.
“Supreme Court jurisprudence tells us that ‘the furtherance of democratic norms in the form of vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is most vital in the classroom,’” Johnson continued. “We are an organization that works to protect free expression as the cornerstone of a healthy democracy, fighting for the very freedoms necessary to foster the spirit of open inquiry in the classroom. We brought that perspective to our filing.”
Margulis was concerned the law would make it impossible to talk about white and male privilege, racism, sexism, and other topics typically found in DEI trainings.
“As a woman-led company with more than 60% women (including one trans woman), and a wedding company that supports all kinds of couples including those of all racial backgrounds and sexual orientations, we have a need to discuss these topics,” Margulis told PEN America.
The law, HB 7, officially called the Individual Freedom Act, was preliminarily enjoined by a federal judge last fall, but remains before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
PEN America said in its brief that between Jan. 11 2021 and Jan. 6, 2023, 210 educational gag orders were introduced in 41 states. Those laws, like HB 7, restrict what can be said in the classroom. PEN America has said that Stop W.O.K.E. and Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law are part of “an alarming pattern of censorship by intimidation in Florida schools.”
“The chilling effect and silencing of speech in educational institutions due to these bills was almost immediate,” PEN America said in its brief. For example, teachers in Texas were told they should balance education about the Holocaust with “opposing views,” and in Tennessee, there was a challenge to Ruby Bridges’ autobiographical children’s book about school desegregation.
“The embrace of these bills demonstrates a disregard for academic freedom and the values of free speech and open inquiry that are enshrined in the First Amendment and that anchor a democratic society.”
The PEN America brief said the law was unconstitutional discrimination against certain viewpoints, and infringed on students’ right to information.
Margulis never thought her business might get caught up in a battle over free speech.
“Although I never imagined being involved in a first amendment case, I’m proud to be in a position to fight for what’s right for business owners,” she said. “Diversity is demonstrably good for business and only helps employees and teams better empathize with each other and their customers.”