Transgender Florida teacher can use preferred pronouns at work, federal judge rules

Video above from Dec. 18, 2023: Florida teacher suing Dept. of Education over pronouns law.

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A transgender teacher can use her preferred pronouns while at work despite a restrictive Florida law, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.

Katie Wood, who teaches at Lennard High School in Ruskin, is suing the Florida Department of Education over a law that bans the use of pronouns different from those assigned at birth.

Those who violate the law could be suspended or have their teaching certificate revoked.

Chief United States District Judge Mark E. Walker, an Obama appointee, wrote that Wood is "substantially likely" to succeed on her First Amendment claims and issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state from enforcing the law against her, pending her lawsuit. The injunction applies only to Wood and not statewide.

"Once again, the State of Florida has a First Amendment problem," Walker wrote. "Of late, it has happened so frequently, some might say you can set your clock by it. 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. 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.'"

Walker wrote that without an injunction, "Ms. Wood's speech will continue to be chilled based on a state law that directly penalizes her protected speech in violation of her First Amendment rights."

Wood is known "in every aspect of her life" as "Ms. Wood," which nearly all of her students would use when referring to her. Her title and preferred pronouns were written on the classroom whiteboard and on a pin on her lanyard, according to court documents.

Wood would correct any students who misgendered her, according to the documents.

Walker's ruling cites a 2022 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of a public school football coach, Joe Kennedy, who lost his job for praying on the football field.

"Like Coach Kennedy's professed faith, Ms. Wood's preferred pronouns and title are uniquely personal to her," Walker wrote. "In the same sense that Coach Kennedy's public prayers identify him as a man of faith, Ms. Wood's expression of her preferred title and pronouns identify her as a woman."

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Walker said that how Wood identifies herself is unique to her, "as it is for every individual, and owes its existence to her personal identity, not her official duties as a public school teacher."

"While Defendants have identified that Ms. Wood's speech conflicts with the State's viewpoint on pronouns, Defendants have provided no evidence for this Court to find that Ms. Wood's speech has impeded her duties as a teacher, or the normal operations of Lennard High School, or the state's interests generally as an employer," Walker wrote.

Walker cited that the high school has continued to rate Wood as an "effective" teacher in performance evaluations. He also noted that Wood's students' test scores are higher than the district average.

"The State of Florida has expressly adopted a viewpoint on the use of pronouns that do not align with a person's sex assigned at birth," Walker wrote. "And [the law] extends the State's viewpoint to censor speech that runs counter to it."

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