A federal judge Thursday cleared the way for a University of Central Florida professor to continue challenging a new state law that restricts the way race-related concepts can be taught in classrooms.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected arguments by the state that Robert Cassanello, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, did not have legal standing to challenge the law — dubbed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as the “Stop WOKE Act.”
Cassanello and other plaintiffs, including public-school teachers and a student, filed the lawsuit in April after DeSantis signed the law (HB 7), arguing that it violated First Amendment rights and was unconstitutionally vague.
Attorneys for the state last month filed a motion for summary judgment aimed at ending Cassanello’s claims in the case. Among other things, they contended that Cassanello did not show that he would be harmed by the law, which Republican lawmakers formally titled the “Individual Freedom” act.
But Walker, in a 13-page decision, rejected the state’s arguments that Cassanello lacked standing.
“In short, drawing all reasonable inferences in Dr. Cassanello’s favor, he reasonably believes that the IFA (Individual Freedom act) bars him from providing instruction that he would otherwise provide,” Walker wrote in addressing one of the state’s arguments.
The law, which also seeks to restrict how race-related concepts can be addressed in workplace training, has drawn at least four legal challenges. Walker last month issued a preliminary injunction against the workplace-training part of the law, calling it a “naked viewpoint-based regulation on speech.”
As an example of how the law addresses the education system, part of it labels instruction discriminatory if students are led to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”
As another example, the law seeks to prohibit instruction that would cause students to “feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”
The state’s attorneys focused heavily on Cassanello’s testimony during a deposition as they argued he didn’t have standing.
“Dr. Cassanello has made clear that the foundation of his teaching methodology is not to endorse or advocate the arguments and theories in material he assigns, but rather to foster in his students the ‘critical thinking’ skills that will enable them to think for themselves,” the state’s attorneys wrote in a court document. “Because the act prohibits only the endorsement of the prohibited concepts — and expressly permits discussion of them — even if some reading material that Dr. Cassanello assigns expressly endorses one of the eight concepts, his act of assigning the material would clearly not violate the act.”
But Walker took issue with the state’s interpretation of Cassanello’s testimony.
“First, defendants (the state) place too much weight on Dr. Cassanello’s claims that he does not endorse material, and that he fears that others will misconstrue the act of assigning material as endorsing that material,” Walker wrote. “Sure, one could interpret this statement as defendants do; namely, that Dr. Cassanello does not believe that his instruction will violate the IFA, but that some will mistakenly believe that it violates the IFA. But one could just as easily interpret Dr. Cassanello to be saying, ‘I personally do not believe I am endorsing these concepts when I assign them, but within the meaning of the IFA, I would be endorsing these concepts.’ So framed, Dr. Cassanello’s chill is reasonable, and stems from defendants’ enforcement of the IFA.”
Cassanello also is seeking a preliminary injunction to block the law, with the state asking Walker to deny the request. Walker did not rule on that issue Thursday, saying he was taking the state’s arguments “under advisement.”
Walker in June denied a preliminary injunction sought by other plaintiffs in the case. In July, he turned down a state request to dismiss the case.
Karen E Joyce says
Thank goodness for teachers and educators like you. We must push back on restrictions of what we can learn in public schools to promote better understanding of diversity. Our country was founded on the separation of church and state. Why are we regressing back to conditions 50-100 years ago? We must vote people like de Santis out of office. Thank you
Steven Gosney says
This seems to be a recurring theme at UCF … See University of Central Florida professor Charles Negy. UCF has a problem with the First Amendment. The administration there needs to get better legal advice.
Pierre Tristam says
Steven those are two diametrically opposed issues. If anything, Negy should file a friend of the court brief in Cassannello’s case. Please tell you don;t find anything legally defensible in the new law?
Steven Gosney says
Long answer here. The issue decided by the Judge was weather the professor lacked standing to challenge the law. It would seem to me that the Court made the correct decision in that a teacher generally should be able to challenge specifically Section h. Whether he will succeed or not is an open question. The issue is complex, as First Amendment law gets very sticky and difficult. There are multiple questions here: who gets to decide what is taught in the classroom of a government school? I would think the elected bodies get some say. The part where I think the professor might have grounds is 1) how the subjects are taught and 2) that the law is vague or overbroad.
Since you asked, I went over and read the text of the law. The way I read it, 760.10(8)(a) Unlawful employment practices —
“Subjecting any individual, as a condition of employment, […], or any other required activity that espouses, […], or compels such individual to believe any of the following concepts constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin under this section: It then lists a bunch of discriminatory concepts, which I think we would all agree properly defines discrimination.”
This seems to me as a ban on compelled speech on individuals. This seems like a legal section.
Then section (b) says, “Paragraph (a) may not be construed to prohibit discussion of the concepts listed therein as part of a course of training or instruction, provided such training or instruction is given in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts.”
So fears of limiting or “chilling” discussion and speech seem overblown.
Section (h) is different. This section deals with the content of classroom instruction. This part is tricky: “However, classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent with the principles enumerated in subsection (3) or the state academic standards.” I am a criminal trial lawyer, and not well versed in government schools and how the curriculum is determined or the authority of the State over mandatory classroom content.
Section (n)(4)(f) has the same issue, which I would need to study more to form an opinion. It says, in part, “Health education and life skills instruction and materials may not contradict the principles enumerated in subsection (3)”
Sub 3 says, “(3) The Legislature acknowledges the fundamental truth that all persons are equal before the law and have inalienable rights. Accordingly, instruction and supporting materials on the topics enumerated in this section must be consistent with the following principles of individual freedom:”
Then it goes on to list certain concepts, which seem to me to be fundamentally American concepts and should not be controversial. Which of these is problematic conceptually?
(a) No person is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex.
(b) No race is inherently superior to another race.
(c) No person should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, disability, or sex.
(d) Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are not racist but fundamental to the right to pursue happiness and be rewarded for industry.
(e) A person, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
Good for him. DeSantis is not God. He is violating everyone’s rights with his “anti-woke bs.” Guess what? Bad things happened in history. People are awful to one another. Teach it. The eff your feelings crowd sure has feelings when they are called what they are – racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, fascists. Why hide it? If you’re truly that way then own it. Why be embarrassed? Outside of the obvious that it makes you a horrible piece of poo and an pathetic excuse of a human. Why hide your faces? Be proud of your hate I want to see who you are.
Michael Cocchiola says
Under the law, history teachers, fearful of MAGA parents and students (even “outing” by other teachers and staff), may not teach the truth about the foundation of America which undeniably includes the displacement and murder of Native Peoples. The outrages of slavery cannot be taught. Nor of the ravages of post-Civil War reconstruction and Jim Crow laws. Or of the murderous KKK or the civil rights marches and murders in the 50s and 60s.
MAGAS are the scourge of education and of our society.