ACLU-backed lawsuit targets Florida law limiting race-related education in public colleges

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Dive Brief:

  • Seven professors and a college student in Florida’s public institutions sued Thursday to block a new state law that curtails instruction about race and gender, arguing the statute is unconstitutional. 
  • The Florida and national branches of the American Civil Liberties Union are backing the lawsuit, which says the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees, or Stop WOKE, Act, treads on free speech rights and discriminates against Black students and instructors. The law also puts prohibitions on K-12 schools and employers.
  • Conservative lawmakers who spearheaded the bill have said it was designed to diffuse “indoctrination” in schools and end teachings that would make students feel shame based on their race, sex or national origin.   

Dive Insight:

Florida Republicans were quick to jump onto a GOP movement railing against diversity and inclusion training and critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that in part teaches racism is systemic in nature. 

Scholars have said conservatives have misrepresented critical race theory’s tenets, conflating them with any discussion linked to diversity. 

The Stop WOKE Act, which took effect July 1, prohibits public colleges from promoting concepts Republicans have deemed divisive, such as that a “person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past,” the law states. 

Public institutions that infringe on the law could have their state funding pulled. 

The law carves out an exception so that educators can teach these topics if they present them “in an objective manner without endorsement.”

But the ACLU-supported lawsuit alleges this language is vague and that professors can’t discern whether their typical curricula would run afoul of the law. For instance, if a faculty member characterized a race-related study as methodologically sound, it’s unclear whether that would constitute an endorsement.

The lawsuit names as defendants several trustee boards at public colleges, as well as the governing board for the State University System. Renee Fargason, a spokesperson for the system, said it does not comment on pending litigation.

A representative for the Florida College System did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

In court documents, the plaintiffs alleged the law was interfering with their scholarship, listing several examples. 

Dana Thompson Dorsey, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of South Florida, teaches a graduate-level class centered on critical race theory and other race-conscious schools of thought. Thompson Dorsey believes the Stop WOKE Act would prohibit her from continuing to teach the course in the same manner, according to court documents. 

Though the Stop WOKE Act does not explicitly ban critical race theory, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican and key figure in the law’s passage, has said it is meant to “take on” the academic concept. 

Sharon Austin, a political science professor at University of Florida, who teaches several race-centered courses, said in court filings that all of her classes will be affected because they examine viewpoints that Florida’s legislature disfavors. 

“She discusses ideas such as, people of different races carry different unconscious biases; that white people carry certain privileges that Black and Latino people do not; and that racial ‘colorblindness’ can be a tool to oppress people of color,” the lawsuit states. “Dr. Austin believes that the Stop W.O.K.E. Act will prevent students from hearing the truth about racism.”

They allege the law violates the First and 14th amendments and that legislators were aware that it would disenfranchise Black people specifically. 

Also on Thursday, a federal judge halted enforcement of employment provisions within the Stop WOKE Act after honeymoon registry company Honeyfund and workplace diversity consultant Collective Concepts sued in June.

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