Civil rights groups sue FL university system; claim new law stifles profs’ instruction about race

National civil rights groups are suing Florida higher education officials on behalf of seven university professors and a Florida State University student, claiming that a new law restricts their ability to discuss race in a variety of fields thus violating free speech.

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

“It (HB 7) is designed to prevent students from utilizing 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 subjects that our governor and legislator don’t like,” Edwards continued.

The law in question is formally known as HB 7 Individual Freedom, a contentious policy from the 2022 legislative session that many saw as a vehicle for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE Act.” He initially proposed the idea during 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, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or “Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, national origin, or sex to oppress members of another race, color, national origin, or sex.”

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

The complaint was filed Thursday with 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 usually referred to in the complaint as the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act”, violates the First Amendment “by imposing viewpoint-based restrictions on the speech of instructors and the receipt of information by students in college classrooms.”

From the complaint:

“The Stop W.O.K.E. Act explicitly threatens race and gender-based speech, impacting a wide array 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 that is steered toward the legislature’s own views. These restrictions are particularly invidious because they target instructors and students from marginalized communities, especially Black instructors and students.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, the Legal Defense Fund with the NAACP, and Ballard Spahr, a law firm founded in Pennsylvania with several offices located around the United States.

These plaintiffs are suing members on Florida’s Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., and the boards of trustees at 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 that the law is “unconstitutionally vague” and that the law was “enacted for a racially discriminatory purpose.” The complaint argues that HB 7 was created largely in response to conversations about race in America following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer from 2020.

“The Stop W.O.K.E. Act is racially motivated censorship that the Florida Legislature enacted, in significant part, to stifle widespread demands to discuss, study, and address systemic inequalities, following the nationwide protests that provoked discussions about race and racism in the aftermath of 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 that 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’m acting as an instructor and I speak in class, and I don’t treat concepts like systemic racism, unconscious bias or white privilege as theories, but as fact, will I be censored because of another student discomfort? Because the alternative for me would be to not speak at all. I am not starting off every statement with disclaimers that require me to gaslight myself and make the live experiences of Black and brown people more digestible for others to consume.”

She added: “It decreases the quality of education I received as a student and how engaged I am in class if I have to walk on eggshells. We should all have the freedom to learn, especially from each other.”

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

“Dr. Pernell believes that his teaching methods cannot comport with the Stop W.O.K.E Act because he would not be permitted to endorse the view that concepts like ‘neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness’ may have racist origins,” the complaint says. “To comply with the Act (HB 7), however, would directly conflict with a core tenet of his pedagogy: the idea that the legal system is not, and has never been, race-neutral.”

Other educators have similar concerns in the lawsuit, including an associate professor at UCF’s school of communications and an associate professor of measurement and statistics with FSU’s educational psychology department.

The complaint reads that: “The Stop W.O.K.E. Act imposes unconstitutional viewpoint-based restrictions on instructors’ speech and is contrary to the principle of academic freedom. Instructors can no longer say anything in class that might be perceived as ‘woke,’ as that term is understood by the legislature, without reasonably fearing official consequences”

Civil rights groups sue FL university system; claim new law stifles profs’ instruction about race