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Federal Court Partially Halts Oklahoma’s Classroom Censorship Law

Federal Court Partially Halts Oklahoma’s Classroom Censorship Law

OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal court granted a partial preliminary injunction that will blunt the impact of Oklahoma’s classroom censorship law, HB 1775, which sought to severely restrict teachers and students in K-12 public schools and public universities from learning and talking about race and gender.

The decision comes in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and pro bono counsel Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP on behalf of a multiracial group of plaintiffs — including a number of Oklahoma public K-12 school and university students and teachers — challenging the state legislature’s unconstitutional censorship of discussions about race and gender in schools.

With this ruling on the preliminary injunction, parts of HB 1775 cannot be enforced while the litigation is pending.

“This ruling is an important victory for our clients and other Oklahoma students and teachers who value inclusive education. HB 1775’s prohibition on teaching banned concepts can no longer be applied in college classrooms, and K-12 teachers are now safe from the act’s most confusing restrictions,” said Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “We look forward to the court permanently striking down this unconstitutional classroom censorship law.”

The court enjoined many provisions of the law, holding that they are so vague that it is difficult for teachers to know what they can and cannot teach in the classroom. Specifically, the court enjoined the provision prohibiting university orientations and requirements that address racism or sexism. This means that HB 1775 cannot be enforced in Oklahoma university classrooms during the course of the litigation.

The court also stopped the enforcement of two provisions restricting K-12 instruction — subsections (c) and (d) — because they are unclear, fail to let educators know what course material is prohibited, and could prevent discussions of a wide variety of ideas, including those that are the subject to current political debates, like affirmative action. These provisions cannot be enforced during the course of the litigation.

For the remaining banned concepts in K-12, the court provided guidance for teachers about what material they are allowed to teach. The court further clarified that teachers are prohibited from endorsing the banned concepts but are allowed to discuss issues related to sexism and racism in the course of their instruction.

“We are thrilled that robust and nuanced discussions of history, identity, and culture may return to Oklahoma university classrooms and that K-12 teachers have some much-needed guidance in navigating the law,” said Megan Lambert, ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation legal director. “We will continue to defend Oklahoma’s students and teachers from politically motivated censorship and racial discrimination.”

“Judge Goodwin’s ruling pushes our state closer to justice, especially for marginalized communities who have not only been historically abused physically but academically as well. We will continue to fight and convince the court that we are on the right side of the law,” said Anthony Crawford, a teacher who is a plaintiff in the case.

The Oklahoma law lead authors in the state House and Senate declared the intent behind HB 1775 was to prohibit conversations related to “implicit bias,” “systemic racism,” and “intersectionality,” among other concepts. In the lawsuit, the groups argue HB 1775 unlawfully silenced students’ and educators’ speech through its vague and overbroad terms. It also intentionally targeted and denied access to equitable, culturally relevant teaching and ideas that reflect the history and lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color; women and girls; and 2SLGBTQ+ students.

“The ruling represents an important step forward for students and our democracy, which is strengthened when teachers and students are free to discuss the truth about American history and share diverse viewpoints about current events around race and gender,” said David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The judge’s ruling is a significant first step towards invalidating this law, and the spate of similar anti-diversity and inclusion laws that seek to erase history and harm our multiracial society.”

“We are encouraged that this ruling stymies key provisions of HB 1775 and its unconstitutional censorship in Oklahoma classrooms,” said Sara Solfanelli, special counsel for pro bono initiatives for Schulte Roth & Zabel. “This decision is a victory for Oklahoma’s students and teachers who may now engage in a more open and honest discussion of Oklahoman and American history without the fear of state-sanctioned retaliation. But the work does not end here — until permanent relief is afforded, Schulte Roth & Zabel is proud to work alongside the ACLU, ACLU-OK, and the Lawyers’ Committee in the continued quest for academic freedom and to invalidate this law.”

Originally published at https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/federal-court-partially-halts-oklahomas-classroom-censorship-law

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