TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A University of South Florida student and professor are suing state education officials and the university’s board of trustees over recently passed legislation, House Bill 7, the “Stop WOKE Act.”

Professor Adriana Novoa, who teaches history at USF, student Sam Rechek, and USF’s First Amendment Forum filed a lawsuit against Florida’s Critical Race Theory ban, alleging it is government censorship. They are represented by educational free speech organization FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

The case was filed in federal court in Tallahassee. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief from the law, which they say functions “in flagrant disregard” of free speech protections and academic freedom in higher education, which are “special concerns” of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The plaintiffs’ prayer for relief asks courts to permanently declare the law unconstitutional under the First and 14th Amendments as well as prevent it from being enacted, in addition to requesting attorney fees and awards for costs of litigation.

As previously covered during the bill’s path from proposal to law, HB 7, titled “Individual Freedom” blocks the teaching of racially-focused topics from Florida’s K-12 curriculum, higher education curriculum, and workplace trainings.

HB 7 defines new types of prejudices for the state of Florida, saying that making anyone participate in lessons, classes, or training that leads to feelings of “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” due to their demographic status, such as “race, color, sex or national origin” is a form of discrimination.

Additionally, the law says that teaching, training or activity that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” them to believe their race, color, sex, or national origin is morally superior to members of another is also a form of discrimination. In shorthand, the bill has been referred to as a ban on the teaching of Critical Race Theory. To be clear, CRT was not taught in Florida’s K-12 school system before the law’s passage.

Now law, HB 7 prevents it from being taught in any of Florida’s “K-20 public education system,” which includes academic lessons in higher education. The lawsuit by USF Professor Novoa and students at the university allege that the law not only is in conflict with federal free speech protections, but other state laws, such as the Campus Free Expression Act, passed in 2021.

The lawsuit states the Campus Free Expression Act “obligates public universities to refrain from ‘shield[ing] students’ from ‘access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions’—expressly including ‘faculty research, lectures, writings, and commentary’—on the basis that the ideas may be ‘uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.'”

However, HB 7 pushes back on those protections, in addition to the normal academic and expressive rights enshrined by the Bill of Rights, according to Novoa and Rechek’s lawsuit. It says the plaintiffs bring their lawsuit against the state and its officials in order to “vindicate the constitutional and statutory rights of faculty and students in college classrooms to engage in debate uninhibited by state orthodoxy.”

Novoa teaches courses that will be directly impacted by the law’s provisions, according to the lawsuit. She’s been an instructor at USF since 2001, according to the lawsuit, and currently teaches three courses that would be prohibited by the Stop WOKE Act. Therefore, the lawsuit alleges Florida law now will have a “chilling effect” on her, and would expose Novoa to disciplinary action.

Additionally, by the law’s provisions, Novoa would allegedly be open to liability for attorney’s fees, and USF itself would potentially lose roughly $73 million on a yearly basis, in funding.

Rechek, as a student, will be unable to “engage in debate” with either Novoa or his fellow students due to the structure of the Stop WOKE Act, infringing upon his academic freedom and First Amendment rights, according to the lawsuit.

The court filing states that students will be unable to speak their minds or have civil discussions about “hot-button issues” including student rights policy reform, hosting events and workshops about student rights, or “cultivate a community that embraces the merit of the First Amendment” due to how HB 7 is written, and what it bans for academic discussion and instruction, according to the lawsuit.

As a result, the rules put in place by the Stop WOKE Act “limit students’ ability to hear from—and chills students’ willingness to ask questions of—faculty whose views may be contrary to those of the State of
Florida,” according to Novoa and Rechek’s legal complaint.

According to FIRE, who is representing the professor and student, HB 7 “suppresses viewpoints disfavored by Florida lawmakers, threatens tens of millions of dollars in annual funding for universities that don’t crack down on faculty who ‘promote’ an opinion on a government blacklist, and encourages people to report other Americans to government authorities if they “advance” those views — all in the name of ‘individual freedom.’”

Through the lawsuit, FIRE says Novoa and her co-plaintiffs seek relief against restriction of what “ideas may be considered in a college classroom,” saying HB 7 is full of vague language that makes educators and professors unsure of what lessons the state’s government approves of for instruction, putting them at risk of punishment or termination.

“Without the freedom to engage in vigorous and robust debate about important issues and contentious concepts, a college education is just an exercise in memorizing facts and repeating government-approved viewpoints,” FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh said. “That’s not freedom or education.”

WFLA.com has reached out to the Florida Department of Education for comment on the lawsuit.