Metro Weekly

Judge Dismisses Second Challenge to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Law

Wendy Berger, a Trump appointee, dismisses parental concerns about anti-LGBTQ harassment at school, saying bullying is a "fact of life."

Exterior of the George C. Young Federal Building and Courthouse, in Orlando, which houses the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. – Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.

A federal judge has dismissed a second lawsuit challenging Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, also dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law for its restrictions on speech related to LGBTQ issues.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Berger, of the Middle District of Florida, a Trump appointee, dismissed a lawsuit brought by LGBTQ students, parents and their families, along with several civil rights groups, refusing to grant a preliminary injunction to block the law from being enforced. However, Berger did give the plaintiffs until Nov. 3 to file an amended lawsuit, reports The Associated Press.

The lawsuit, which names four different school boards as defendants, claims that the law infringes on LGBTQ students’ right to free speech and free expression, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and deprives them of their rights to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The plaintiffs include a same-sex couple and their two children, an opposite-sex couple and their four children, one of whom is nonbinary, and Will Larkins, an gay and nonbinary rising senior at Winter Park High School in Orange County, Florida, who was “investigated” and forcibly moved to another history class after giving a presentation in history class about the Stonewall Uprising. 

But Berger claimed that the plaintiffs failed to show how the law — which bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and requires LGBTQ-related content to be “age-appropriate” in older grades — suppresses their free speech rights. 

“Plaintiffs have not directed this Court to any fact that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the law prohibits students from discussing their families and vacations at school or even on a school assignment, or that it would prohibit a parent from attending a school function in a ‘Pride’ T-shirt or generally discussing their family structure in front of other people,” Berger wrote in her decision.

Addressing concerns expressed by the parents of a nonbinary middle school student that Florida’s newly enacted law would condone and encourage more bullying, Berger feigned sympathy, but added that “it is simply a fact of life that many middle school students will face the criticism and harsh judgment of their peers.”

“Indeed, middle school children bully and belittle their classmates for a whole host of reasons, all of which are unacceptable, and many of which have nothing to do with a classmate’s gender identity,” she continued.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs called Berger’s decision “wrong” and vowed not to stop fighting the law.

“The students and families at the heart of this case have experienced more bullying in the months since the law went into effect than ever before in their lives, but the court dismissed their experiences of bullying as ‘a fact of life,'” Kell Olson, a staff attorney for the LGBTQ legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “The court’s decision defies decades of precedent establishing schools’ constitutional obligations to protect student speech, and to protect students from targeted bullying and harassment based on who they are.”

Last month, a Trump-appointed judge for the Northern District of Florida dismissed a similar challenge to the law, questioning their legal standing, and whether the plaintiffs had or would suffer injury under the law. 

A report released in August by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, in conjunction with the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said that hateful references to gays, lesbians, and other LGBTQ people — including the now-infamous “groomer” narrative pushed by conservatives, including Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s official spokeswoman — surged online after lawmakers passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. On Facebook and Instagram, 59 paid ads promoted the same anti-LGBTQ narrative, despite policies that allegedly prohibit hateful content on both platforms.

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!