Federal Judge Upholds Transgender Teacher's Right to Preferred Pronouns at Work

Federal Judge Upholds Transgender Teacher’s Right to Preferred Pronouns at Work

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that a transgender Hillsborough County teacher can use her preferred pronouns at work, despite Florida’s restrictive statute.

Katie Wood, a teacher at Lennard High School in Ruskin, is challenging the Florida Department of Education over a regulation that prohibits the use of pronouns other than those assigned at birth.

Those who breach the law may face suspension or revocation of their teaching credential.

Chief United States District Judge Mark E. Walker, an Obama appointee, said that Wood is “substantially likely” to succeed on her First Amendment claims and issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from implementing the statute against her while her lawsuit is underway.

The injunction only applies to Wood and is not statewide.

“Once again, the State of Florida has a First Amendment problem,” Walker stated. “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 stated 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.”

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Wood is known “in every aspect of her life” as “Ms. Wood,” and almost all of her students address her as such. Her title and preferred pronouns were posted on the classroom blackboard and a button on her lanyard, according to court records.

Walker’s order cites a 2022 Supreme Court decision in favor of Joe Kennedy, a public school football coach who was fired for praying on the field.

“Like Coach Kennedy’s professed faith, Ms. Wood’s preferred pronouns and title are uniquely personal to her,” Walker stated. “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.”

Walker stated that Wood’s identity 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 in his opinion.

Walker stated that the High School has consistently rated Wood as a “effective” teacher in performance reviews. He also mentioned that Wood’s students have greater test scores 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 said in a statement. “And [the law] extends the State’s viewpoint to censor speech that runs counter to it.”