TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Governor Ron DeSantis’ ban on local mask mandates will be put on hold after Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper ruled, in part, that the state's Parent's Bill of Rights prohibits such a ban from being enforced.
"It (the Parent's Bill of Rights) doesn't ban mask mandates at all," Judge Cooper said. "If you do adopt one, it has to be reasonable, support a compelling state purpose, be narrowly drawn, and accomplish a goal not available through some other means."
Cooper's decision will be effective as of the date of the written order, even though the verbal order was enacted just after noon Friday. The projected date of a written order, as discussed at the beginning of Friday's session would likely be Tuesday.
"A school board enacting a mask mandate is acting within its discretion provided by the Florida Legislature if they meet the requirements set forth in the parent's bill of rights," Judge Cooper said Friday while describing his decision.
Still, Judge Cooper took special note to say he wasn't issuing an injunction or order against Governor DeSantis but instead enjoining the enforcement agencies. He also noted several times throughout Friday's hearing that parents' rights are "very important," but they're not without some reasonable restrictions as all rights in the United States are subjected to by courts.
When speaking of how rights can be limited, Judge Cooper discussed the ability of the state to restrict people from drinking and driving, even though drinking alcohol is a right. He also paraphrased the classic legal example from Schenck v. United States of not being able to yell fire in a crowded theater, even though we have freedom of speech. Cooper used the examples to explain rights can be limited if, "exercising that right is harmful to other people."
The case concluded Thursday with attorneys for both sides wrapping up their cases in closing arguments. Attorney Craig Whisenhunt told Cooper that Gov. Ron DeSantis exceeded his authority, issuing a dangerous and illegal order requiring parental opt-outs.
"We're asking you to direct Commissioner [Richard] Corcoran and the Department of Education to cease and desist the enforcement of the unconstitutional order that they are currently beating school districts down with to force compliance in unsafe environments," Whisenhunt said.
At least 10 districts have openly defied the governor's order, installing mask mandates without the required parental opt-outs. They include the state's six largest school systems, which represent nearly half of Florida's public students, including Hillsborough County. The State Board and Department of Education have threatened financial sanctions for any district in violation.
To date, only two school districts have been officially penalized -- Broward and Alachua counties. The state is withholding funds equal to the monthly pay of all school board members who voted in favor of noncompliance.
Judge Cooper agreed in part with the plaintiffs and took time to explain the governor's order and its basis was in opposition to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, medical experts, and the scientific community. Cooper noted multiple Florida statutes are based on CDC recommendations and guidance and that the CDC "is considered the preeminent medical authority in this country about infectious disease.
Attorneys for the state alleged the ban is a policy decision protected under the Parents' Bill of Rights.
For his part, Governor Ron DeSantis said Thursday he would appeal any unfavorable decisions.
"Obviously, if we win in district court or trial court, I'm sure it'll be appealed on the other side too," DeSantis said. "That's good. We obviously need to have this stuff crystallized."