Civil rights groups sue FL university system; claim that a new law is stifling teachers’ instructions on race


National civil rights groups are suing Florida higher education officials on behalf of seven college professors and a Florida State University student, claiming a new law restricts their ability to discuss the race in various fields, thus violating freedom of expression.

“This law is a dangerous attempt to silence the lived experiences of Black Floridians. It tells black and brown communities that their histories and their histories don’t matter,” said Jerry Edwards, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida and one of the attorneys filing the federal lawsuit, during a briefing. a virtual press conference on Thursday.

“It (HB 7) is designed to prevent students from using their right to learn about the history and lived experiences of black people and other marginalized people in this country. And it discourages teachers and professors from discussing topics that our governor and legislator don’t like,” Edwards continued.

The law in question is officially known as HB 7 Individual Freedom, a controversial policy from the 2022 legislative session that many saw as a vehicle for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE Act.” He originally proposed the idea at a press conference in December 2021.

The law, signed April 22, restricts how workplaces and classrooms discuss race and gender, and prohibits teaching concepts such as: “An individual, because of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously”, or “Virtues such as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity and racial colorblindness is racist or sexist, or was created by members of one race, color, national origin, or gender to oppress members of another race, color, national origin or gender.

Additional legislation also risks state funding for these higher education institutions if found in violation of HB 7, the Phoenix previously reported.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. The plaintiffs are several university professors and associate professors. They claim that HB 7, which is generally referred to in the complaint as the “Stop WOKE Law”, violates the First Amendment “by imposing viewpoint-based restrictions on instructors’ speech and students’ receipt of information.” in college classrooms.

From the complaint:

“The Stop WOKE Act explicitly threatens discourses based on race and gender, affecting a wide range of courses, in the humanities and beyond. As a result, students are either denied access to knowledge altogether or receive incomplete or inaccurate information from instructors, which is geared towards the legislature’s own views. These restrictions are particularly odious because they target instructors and students from marginalized communities, especially black instructors and students.

Plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Legal Defense Fund with the NAACP, and Ballard Spahr, a Pennsylvania-based law firm with multiple offices located in the United States.

These plaintiffs are suing members of the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., and the boards of trustees of the universities where the plaintiffs teach or attend, such as the University of Florida, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), Florida State University, University of Central Florida, among others.

The 92-page complaint also cites the Fourteenth Amendment, saying the law is “unconstitutionally vague” and that the law was “passed for the purpose of racial discrimination.” The complaint argues that HB 7 was created largely in response to conversations about race in America following the police killing of George Floyd from 2020.

“The Stop WOKE Act is racially motivated censorship that the Florida Legislature enacted, in large part, to stifle widespread demands to discuss, study, and address systemic inequalities, following nationwide protests that have sparked discussions of race and racism following the murder. of George Floyd,” according to the complaint.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, a black woman who is a senior at Florida State University, said HB 7 lowers the quality of her education.

Johana Dauphin, who is majoring in international affairs with a concentration in urban and regional planning, said during the virtual press conference:

“If I act as an instructor and speak in class, and don’t treat concepts like systemic racism, unconscious bias, or white privilege as theories, but as facts, will I be censored? Because of another student’s discomfort? Because the alternative for me would be not to speak at all. I don’t start every statement with disclaimers that force me to gaslight and to make the live experiences of black and brown people more digestible for others to consume.

She added: “It diminishes the quality of education I received as a student and my level of engagement in the classroom if I have to walk on eggshells. We should all have the freedom to learn, especially from each other.

Another plaintiff, an FAMU law professor named LeRoy Pernell, fears his courses on race and law will be impacted by HB 7, according to the complaint.

“Dr. Pernell believes that his teaching methods cannot comply with the Stop WOKE Act because he would not be allowed to endorse the idea that concepts such as ‘neutrality, objectivity and racial color blindness’ may have racist origins “, states the complaint. “To comply with the law (HB 7), however, would run directly counter to a fundamental principle of his pedagogy: the idea that the legal system is not, and never has been, neutral on the racially.”

Other educators have similar concerns in the lawsuit, including an associate professor in UCF’s School of Communication and an associate professor of measurement and statistics in FSU’s Department of Educational Psychology.

The complaint reads: “The Stop WOKE Act imposes unconstitutional viewpoint-based restrictions on teachers’ freedom of expression and is contrary to the principle of academic freedom. Instructors can no longer say anything in class that could be perceived as “woke,” as that term is understood by lawmakers, without reasonable fear of official consequences”


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