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New College Faculty & Students Sue to Overturn Florida’s New Anti-Diversity Law

Senate Bill 266 “deeply offends the First Amendment,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer said in court on Monday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event at The Vault on October 5, 2023, in Tampa, Florida.

A federal judge heard arguments on Monday challenging the state of Florida’s newly passed law that forbids institutions of higher learning from implementing programs to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, often abbreviated to DEI, or allowing discussion about DEI in the classrooms.

The lawsuit was brought by professors and students at New College of Florida, which would be detrimentally affected by the new law, they contend. First Amendment lawyer Gary Edinger, who represents the plaintiffs, called the law “obviously unconstitutional.”

The law, commonly referred to as Senate Bill 266, creates “content-based and viewpoint-based censorship of speech in violation of the First Amendment” and “directly infringes upon their academic freedom as well as their right to freely engage in free speech and debate on all topics of interest and concern,” Edinger argued on Monday.

“The idea that the state could fix one viewpoint and say, ‘You’re not allowed to express that,’ deeply offends the First Amendment,” Edinger added.

Lawyers for the state, in its defense of the statute, largely centered their argument on the fact that the law hasn’t been implemented yet. Since the state Board of Governors that oversees the New College of Florida hasn’t created any new regulations based on the law, they argued, the plaintiffs lack standing to bring forward a lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said he will issue a preliminary decision on the lawsuit within the next 10 days. Litigants are hopeful that, based on his past rulings — including his blocking Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) “Stop WOKE Act” legislation at the collegiate level — Walker will again take action to block Senate Bill 266.

However, at the hearing on Monday, Walker seemed to express some agreement with defendants that the lawsuit may be preliminary, and that plaintiffs may have some standing issues.

Edinger was confident that, barring that complication, the law could be successfully challenged.

“I think if the judge had his druthers, and we weren’t dealing with very sophisticated standing issues, this statute is obviously unconstitutional,” Edinger told The Tallahassee Democrat.

The bill, which was signed by DeSantis in May after the state legislature had passed it earlier this year, has been lambasted by critics, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, as “part of a coor\dinated attack by partisan politicians on our right to learn about systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege in higher education.”

The law forbids, among other items, universities from including curriculum “that is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities” — doing so in spite of the fact that there are myriad examples of institutional racism that persist to this very day.

DeSantis’s actions on education in Florida have included a number of “whitewashing” tactics to remove the teaching of concepts relating to the history of racism in the state and the U.S. His administration, for example, rejected an Advanced Placement Black Studies course in the state due to its content, and has broadly rejected “critical race theory” (using an oversimplified and errant definition of the term) in order to limit the teaching of other courses and lessons across the state. Critics of the governor have said his efforts are turning Florida into a “proto-fascist” state.

“DeSantis’s actions are about intimidation, silencing potential dissident voices, preempting critical thinking from young people that might lead to informed political action, and flexing his muscle to silence voices that do not echo his own,” historian Barbara Ransby said in an op-ed on Truthout earlier this year.

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