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New College group alleges a Florida law 'censors' courses

 A student makes her way past the sign at New College on Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota.
Chris O'Meara
A student makes her way past the sign at New College on Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota.

Alleging that numerous courses and topics will be prohibited or “severely curtailed” by a new state law, a group that opposes Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to remake New College of Florida filed a federal lawsuit Monday challenging the measure.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the group NCF Freedom, Inc. and New College professors and students. The legal challenge asked a judge to block the state from enforcing the 2023 law and to declare that the measure is unconstitutional.

The legal challenge argued that DeSantis and Republican state lawmakers, who control the House and Senate, have “adopted as state policy the goal of prohibiting the dissemination of certain ideas,” through a series of measures over the past few years.

“The state of Florida leads the country in efforts to censor academic freedom and instruction in its college classrooms,” the lawsuit said.

Defendants in the lawsuit are state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., members of the state university system’s Board of Governors, members of the New College Board of Trustees and New College Interim President Richard Corcoran.

According to NCF Freedom’s website, the group was formed in an effort to “improve New College in a manner that avoids unethical, improper or illegal actions by the State, the Board of Governors, the Board of Trustees, or the Administration that will harm the mission and future of New College.”

The legal challenge, filed in the Northern District of Florida, focused largely on a part of the law (SB 266) that sets strict prohibitions on instruction of certain topics in “general education core courses” at state colleges and universities.

The law, in part, requires that such courses “may not distort significant historical events,” include curriculum that teaches “identity politics,” or violate a state law that restricts the way certain race-related topics can be taught in schools.

The law also prohibits 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.”

Restrictions in the 2023 law would strip away numerous course offerings from New College students, plaintiffs argued Monday.

“There are a host of programs, majors, courses and textbooks/assignments at New College which are either directly prohibited by SB 266 or which will be severely curtailed, censored and limited by that law,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit listed a number of the programs and courses that would be on the chopping block.

Classes such as “Queer History: Sexuality in the 20th Century United States,” “Queer Studies,” “Race, Gender and Sexuality,” “Sociology of Gender and the Body,” and “Topics in Feminist Philosophy,” would likely “be prohibited outright, or at risk of being chilled” by the law, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued.

The New College Board of Trustees last week voted to begin a process that would eliminate the school’s gender studies program, with the student and faculty members of the trustees voting against the plan.

New College has drawn heavy attention amid efforts by leadership at the school — which was revamped by DeSantis in January through a slew of conservative appointees to the trustees board — to make sweeping changes. Since the governor’s appointments, the board has removed former New College president Patricia Okker and replaced her on an interim basis with Corcoran, a former state House speaker and state education commissioner. DeSantis has made education one of the pillars of his 2024 run for president.

With Corcoran at the helm, the New College trustees also eliminated an on-campus office that handled issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

The lawsuit filed Monday also pointed to other programs and course offerings that plaintiffs said would be jeopardized by the law. For example, the complaint alleged that a “student majoring in Art History is apparently encouraged to evaluate the most off-limits of all subjects — ‘critical race theory.’” Critical race theory is based on the concept that racism is embedded in American institutions.

A concentration in art history includes an emphasis on “theory and method course that introduces students to a variety of critical frameworks,” such as “social history, semiotics, feminist and gender theory, critical race and post-colonial theory, and globalization,” the lawsuit said.

Courses in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, urban studies and English also could violate the law, the plaintiffs' lawyers argued.

“The elimination or curtailment of many AOCs (areas of concentration) or majors directly affects the rights of current and future faculty and students, including the plaintiffs bringing this action. Faculty and students at colleges and universities throughout Florida face the same censorship and the same injury to their rights of free speech and academic inquiry,” the 81-page lawsuit said.

The 2023 law restricts speech “in two separate but complementary” ways, the plaintiffs argued.

“It directly censors the teaching of the disfavored topics by prohibiting them outright,” and “denies funding to institutions which offer courses that address or include the prohibited topics,” lawyers for the plaintiffs argued.

Under the 2023 measure, schools that offer courses that do not comply with those parts of the law would not be eligible to receive what is known as performance-based funding. Such funding can total tens of millions of dollars for some universities.

Meanwhile, the law also is the subject of a separate legal challenge filed earlier this month in Leon County circuit court by faculty unions and a New College professor who was denied tenure.

That lawsuit challenges a part of the law that did away with arbitration in university employment disputes. The plaintiffs, including New College professor Hugo Viera-Vargas, argued that the law violates collective-bargaining rights and unconstitutionally “impairs” an existing union contract.

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Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida
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