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Opinion: The ‘Stop W.O.K.E. Act’ and free speech — How this Florida judge protected the Constitution

Freedom of expression is essential for our wider society

SHARE Opinion: The ‘Stop W.O.K.E. Act’ and free speech — How this Florida judge protected the Constitution
Kids holding signs against critical race theory stand on a stage near Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he addresses the crowd.

Kids holding signs against critical race theory stand on a stage near Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he addresses the crowd before publicly signing HB7, the “individual freedom” bill, also dubbed the “stop woke” bill, during a news conference at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on Friday, April 22, 2022.

Daniel A. Varela, Miami Herald via Associated Press

Florida Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, have just won big in the election but also just suffered a major loss in court. Citing “1984,” George Orwell’s classic novel of totalitarian repression, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker has blocked portions of FL HB 7 (22R), Individual Freedom Act, also termed the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act.”

The law limited by Walker’s injunction attempts to dictate in detail what can or cannot be taught or promoted regarding people’s appearance, ethnicity, gender, race and other matters. State officials in effect tried to violate First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech.

Why should we care? Young children must be protected from adult manipulation under the false guise of “education,” but freedom of expression is essential for our wider society.

Decades ago, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, my employer, experienced pressure to cancel an event featuring an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization. We did not. Council Chairman John D. Gray, head of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, provided crucial support.

Over time, efforts to suppress speakers came from various directions. When a telephoned bomb threat disrupted a lecture by Congressman Paul Findley, a critic of Israel, we continued in a stairwell. Followers of radical Lyndon LaRouche, who exploited youth, tried to break up a meeting. They were removed. As an organization, we successfully resisted intimidation.

Winston Churchill evolved over the decades into a genius at collecting all sorts of information and people. One of the most pivotal of the latter proved to be Frederick Lindemann, a brilliant Oxford don in physics and philosophy. Despite his academic success, he remained a social outcast. No doubt, anti-Semitism was one factor in 1930s Britain.

However, Lindemann was his own worst problem, a know-it-all and generally obnoxious. Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys politely described him as “anti-social.”

Even Churchill’s patient wife, Clementine, resisted having the Oxford don as a guest, but Winston insisted. He clearly regarded his friend as possessing special talent.

When Churchill returned to government as head of the Admiralty at the start of World War II in Europe, he immediately recruited Lindemann and gave him freedom in selecting his staff and generally in choosing his myriad projects. The scholar, who was particularly talented at statistical analysis, had one mission: to undermine the conventional wisdom of the Navy and related government projects.

Churchill became prime minister with the fall of France, and Lindemann’s role expanded, but his basic mission remained continuous. He was to analyze and criticize proposals by the officials of the government: admirals and generals, civil servants and politicians, and members of the Cabinet — especially the prime pinister.

Churchill possessed a sizable ego, but also enough long hard experience to be well aware of his own fallibility. He assumed Lindemann would enjoy his role but also expected him to excel, and he did.

Imagination and innovation were crucial to Allied success. Reliability of information was another factor. Lindemann helped drive these dimensions.

Not long after that war, young UCLA instructor David Saxon was fired along with others for refusing to sign a “loyalty oath,” part of anti-communist fever of the time. The California Supreme Court overturned the loyalty-oath law; before that, he had a rough time supporting his young family.

Two decades later, Saxon was named president of the University of California overall.

Storms pass, our Constitution continues.

(In 1974, UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor Saxon approved hiring me, during an awful job market, an incentive to learn about him.)

Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan and NYU Press). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.