Weekly Roundup: Pronouns and Pedagogy. A recap and analysis of the week in Florida government and politics

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Illustration of gender pronouns by Ekaterina Tveitan via iStock for WMNF News.

By Ryan Dailey Apr 12, 2024 ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge this week rejected arguments by the state that a law restricting teachers’ use of their preferred pronouns is a “pedagogical” decision and blocked enforcement of the measure against one educator, saying it violates the First Amendment.

The controversial 2023 law restricted educators’ use of personal pronouns and titles in schools, with violations potentially punishable by teachers being stripped of certifications and hefty financial penalties for school districts.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday that blocked enforcement of the law against Katie Wood, a transgender Hillsborough County teacher who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Walker, however, denied an injunction sought by plaintiff AV Schwandes, a nonbinary teacher fired last year by Florida Virtual School.

Walker also said the injunction would apply only to Wood — not statewide, as the plaintiffs’ lawyers sought.

Walker, who has presided over a slew of other high-profile cases challenging Florida laws, in Tuesday’s decision pointed in part to what he characterized as the state’s track record in curtailing speech.

“Once again, the state of Florida has a First Amendment problem. Of late, it has happened so frequently, some might say you can set your clock by it,” Walker’s 60-page ruling began. “This time, the state of Florida declares that it has the absolute authority to redefine your identity if you choose to teach in a public school.”

Attorneys for the Florida Department of Education and other defendants had asked Walker to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the Legislature has discretion to “promote the state’s pedagogical goals and vindicate parental rights.”

Walker rejected the state’s arguments that the pronoun restriction was a “pedagogical” decision and, as a result, protected from First Amendment scrutiny.

The judge wrote that Wood used her preferred pronouns before the law went into effect and that the “threat of mandatory discipline” prevents her from using them now.

“This is a classic speech injury — Ms. Wood spoke in the past and wants to speak in the future, but she is deterred by a credible threat of discipline. This court concludes that Ms. Wood has submitted sufficient evidence to establish an injury-in-fact,” Walker wrote.

Walker also decided that neither teacher “has demonstrated a likelihood of success” on allegations that the law violates a federal employment law prohibiting discrimination.

“The record before this court does not indicate that Ms. Wood was transferred, demoted, or passed over for training or promotion. Further, Ms. Wood has not asserted that the prestige or responsibility of her position as an educator has been diminished,” Walker said.

HEAT WAGE

Amid a debate about whether the bill is good for Florida’s business environment or bad for its workers, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed into law a measure that will prevent local governments from imposing wage requirements on contractors and requiring heat-exposure protections.

DeSantis’ office announced the bill’s signing (HB 433) in a news release Thursday night.

The heat and wage restriction bill was backed by business groups and underwent a series of changes in the closing days of the session. It received final approval from the House and Senate on March 8, the final day of the session.

Bill Herrle, Florida director of the National Federation of Independent Business, issued a statement Thursday night that said the bill will help “create a stable environment where owners can grow their businesses.”

“Small business owners don’t have the time or the resources to navigate a confusing and contradictory array of local ordinances that go beyond (what) the state already mandates,” Herrle said.

The measure is known as a “preemption” bill, as it would take away authority from local governments.

The part of the bill dealing with heat restrictions came after the Miami-Dade County Commission last year considered a proposal to require construction and agriculture companies to take steps such as ensuring that workers have access to water and giving them 10-minute breaks in the shade every two hours when the heat index is at least 95 degrees, according to a House staff analysis.

More than 90 organizations, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Farmworker Association of Florida and the NAACP Florida State Conference signed on to letters to DeSantis opposing the bill and seeking a veto.

“Floridians feel it getting hotter and understand how difficult and dangerous it is to labor in the sun and heat,” opponents said in an April 2 letter. “Preempting local governments’ ability to protect workers from climate-caused extreme heat is inhumane and will have enormous negative economic impacts when lost productivity is taken into account.”

A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA

New College of Florida President Richard Corcoran will receive $200,000 in incentive pay after the school’s Board of Trustees on Thursday signed off on a performance evaluation and approved releasing the money.

Corcoran has led New College since February 2023, initially on an interim basis amid a leadership shakeup at the school that garnered national attention. Trustees named him president on a permanent basis in October.

Under a contract approved by the trustees and state university system officials last year, Corcoran is eligible to receive $200,000 a year in incentive pay “based on his achievement of the goals and objectives” laid out in the employment agreement. The money approved Thursday was the first time he will receive a $200,000 payment.

The objectives attached to Corcoran’s incentive pay were in eight categories, which included increasing fundraising for the small liberal arts school and making improvements to the campus. The $200,000 will come on top of Corcoran’s $699,000 base salary.

STORY OF THE WEEK

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked Florida education officials from enforcing a law requiring a transgender teacher to use pronouns that align with her sex assigned at birth, saying the law violated her First Amendment rights.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“So, the question before this court is whether the First Amendment permits the state to dictate, without limitation, how public-school teachers refer to themselves when communicating to students. The answer is a thunderous ‘no.’” — Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker

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