Anti-‘woke’ and ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills clear FL House following emotional debates

Both of bills still need approval by Senate and governor

By: - February 24, 2022 4:59 pm

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith speaks on the Florida House floor. Feb. 24, 2022. Credit: Screenshot/ Florida Channel

Florida House Democrats pushed back on legislation that would limit how topics such as LGBTQ people and racism is talked about in classrooms or the workplace, contending the bills will have a chilling effect on teachers and employers.

Yet two hotly-debated bills — HB 7, limiting conversations about racism and sexism in schools and at work, and HB 1557, restricting classroom discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity — were both passed by the House on near-party lines Thursday.

“I feel like there’s a theme here, because we are passing legislation to censor our workplaces and our schools,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who represents part of Orange County, said on the House floor.

HB 7, which passed 74 to 41, would implement Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” initiative, which he announced in December while railing against critical race theory. DeSantis promised to provide parents and employees a vehicle for litigation if they are subjected to so-called “woke” ideology, often referring to conversations about race or sexism.

“This bill didn’t manifest out of thin air,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell said Thursday. “It is in the context of a concerted effort to suppress stories of communities of color and not teach our history, which is everyone’s history.”

Driskell is a Democrat who represents part of Hillsborough County.

Rep. Bryan Avila, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County, the sponsor of HB 7, insisted the legislation affirms that people will not be judged by characteristics such as race or sex.

HB 7, a bill described as “Individual Freedom,” posits a handful of principles that students may not be subjected to in the classroom. This bill also applies to employees and the work place.

Such principles include:

  • ”A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
  • ”A person’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.”
  • ”An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.

HB 7 gives employees the opportunity to sue if they are are subjected to these principles as a workplace requirement, and gives parents a similar opportunity if their child is subjected to them in schools.

Republican lawmakers say teachers can still teach touchy subjects as long as they remain objective and stick to the curriculum set by school districts and the state Department of Education. In fact, a change made to the bill earlier this week expanded preexisting required education on African American history.

Republicans in favor of the bill argued children should be taught history but should not be made to feel ashamed or guilt because of an act that they did not commit.

“We humans, as a species, have done all kinds of atrocities to each other throughout time, and there’s no one race, ethnicity, or sex that have cornered the market on any of those things,” Rep. Ralph Massullo said. He is a Republican who represents Citrus County and part of Hendry County.

He continued: “We’ve all done things to each other, but those children sitting in those classrooms aren’t responsible for those deeds. It is extremely, extremely important for our children know our history — the bad parts and the good parts. And to know that their lives aren’t responsible for that history.”

But the Democrats still see the bill as chilling honest discussion of racism in the classroom and in the workplace.

“This is a classic example of structural racism,” Rep. Ramon Alexander, a Democrat representing Gadsden and part of Leon counties, said. “When you use systems and structures to determine what is and what is not, that is structural racism.”

As for HB 1557, which LGBTQ advocates call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the legislation directly says that “sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through Grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Joe Harding, a Republican who represents Levy and part of Marion County.

Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who represents part of Brevard County, said that the bill reflects a “fundamental debate of should children be protected from parents or should parents be protected from school districts or from bureaucrats.”

He continued: “I’ve heard you all say that we must protect children from their parents. You believe this, OK? I don’t. I believe it is our role to protect families from the government.”

The bill passed on a 69-47 vote, with some Republicans voting against the measure, although they did not speak against it during debate.

Smith, of Orange County, who is gay, said the bill “sends a terrible message to our youth — that there is something so wrong, so inappropriate, so dangerous about this topic that we have to censor it from classroom instruction.”

Both of these bills still need to be approved by the Senate and the governor before they become law.

Equality Florida, a LGBTQ advocacy group, said in a written statement Thursday:

“If signed into law, these bills will have disastrous impacts on classrooms and workplaces. They will turn Florida into a surveillance state and give the government broad license to censor conversations about American history, the origins of racism and injustice, and the existence of LGBTQ people.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.