DeSantis’s anti-woke laws can’t stand up to the First Amendment. They’re still dangerous.
The silencing has begun.
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a bill that blocks public colleges from using federal or state funds on diversity programs, addressing a concern of conservatives ahead of the Republican’s expected presidential candidacy, on May 15 at New College of Florida in Sarasota.
By Kimberly Atkins Stohr, Globe Staff

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s anti-wokeness crusade to trample on the First Amendment with a series of state censorship laws aimed at everything from college administrators to Mickey Mouse is a sure loser.

After all, when one of the most conservative appellate courts in the nation agrees that one of those laws, which outlawed any college-level instruction on anything related to race or gender, shouldn’t be allowed to go into effect while it’s being challenged, that doesn’t bode well for the Sunshine State official.

Still, by the time the courts thwart this and other culture wars on the Constitution, it may very well be too late. The damage will be done — to students, to faculty and teachers, and to our society. And that is exactly what DeSantis and those of his ilk are counting on.

Harvard Law-educated DeSantis knows full well he will lose the courtroom fights. He knows the First Amendment prohibits the very kind of viewpoint discrimination, content-based regulation, and speech-based retaliation DeSantis and GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee are engaged in. These cases wouldn’t even make for tough law school exam questions.

So why is he doing it? It’s because he and like-minded state officials enacting similar laws across the country believe the political payoff will far outweigh the harm they are causing the American people and the very pillars of the Constitution.

DeSantis, who is expected to announce a presidential bid any day now, needs bogeymen to rally against. He’s chosen them: drag performers, kids who want to play sports with their peers, students who wish to learn history that reflects their stories and cultures, educators who dare speak about our nation’s true history, and even the company that created the Magic Kingdom when its executives speak truth to power. In a party that is becoming more extreme and shrinks in size, like a toxic reduction sauce, the pain is increasingly the point.

“It’s problematic because it sends a very clear, strong message to marginalized groups that their history and their views and their stories really aren’t worth learning,’’ said Charles McLaurin, senior counsel at the Legal Defense Fund, one of the groups that filed the legal challenge against Florida’s Stop WOKE Act.

Even if the laws are ultimately halted by courts, McLaurin said, “for Black and brown and LGBTQ people who have been impacted by systemic discrimination and continue to experience it every day, there is potential for a lot of damage to be done.’’

And McLaurin noted that the approach has gone viral, with GOP-controlled state legislatures filing a wave of bills limiting the way race, gender, and sexual orientation and identity are taught in schools.

And they didn’t even have to work that hard. Many bills, including Florida’s law, were largely cut and pasted from a 2020 executive order signed by then-president Donald Trump that outlawed the use of “divisive concepts’’ and “race or sex stereotyping.’’ The MAGA crowd’s marching orders came straight from the top.

And the pain isn’t limited to marginalized Americans. I spoke to two professors at state universities in Florida who were so concerned about the impact of the new laws, including one enacted just this week that bars diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, they didn’t want to speak on the record. The silencing has begun.

“For faculty, and particularly faculty of color — there is this fear out there,’’ McLaurin told me. “What is the line? The law is drafted in a way that it is not clear what is prohibited and what is not prohibited. A lot of faculty members have chosen to self-censor. They don’t even want to go near it.’’

In defense of the policy, DeSantis said those who want to attend a college with such diversity programs are free to “go to Berkeley.’’ What a way to encourage higher-ed brain drain and discourage out-of-state tuition money in your own state.

But his state isn’t on his mind. Trying to claim the GOP’s MAGA throne is. And he needs to wage a culture war to do it, no matter the collateral damage.

Yes, he will lose in court. DeSantis is not bigger than the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean our nation and the principles upon which it stands won’t take a beating.

Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.