New College group sues Florida over law restricting instruction

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Dive Brief:

  • A coalition of New College of Florida professors and students sued the institution’s trustees and the Florida university system’s board of governors Monday over a recently enacted state law that limits what public colleges can teach.
  • In May, Florida enacted a law banning public colleges from teaching certain subjects, like “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.”
  • The lawsuit, which also names the Florida education commissioner and New College’s interim president, alleges the law censors free speech and violates the First Amendment.

Dive Insight:

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 266 into law just days before he announced his 2024 presidential campaign. The legislation, a focal point of his political agenda, also prohibits public colleges from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for students and employees. DeSantis has long been a vocal opponent of DEI initiatives and academic programming that views U.S. history through a lens of systemic racism. 

“What this concept of DEI has been is an attempt to impose orthodoxy on the university,” DeSantis said in signing the legislation. “DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination.”

NCF Freedom, the plaintiff group behind Monday’s lawsuit, is asking a federal district court to declare the law unconstitutional.

In addition to censoring speech, the plaintiffs allege the law is vague, overly broad and likely to deter speech beyond its purview.

Several New College programs, courses and assignments will be either prohibited or “severely curtailed, censored and limited by that law,” the lawsuit said. 

It listed classes and majors that could be negatively affected, including history, philosophy and gender studies — all hallmarks of a liberal arts education. New College’s trustees began the process of dismantling its gender studies department Thursday, though they didn’t cite the new law as the cause.

“It is doubtful that even the hard sciences escape the censor’s cudgel of SB 266,” the lawsuit said. As an example, it pointed to a sexuality and gender class included as part of New College’s biology major.

NCF Freedom also alleges the law infringes on the 14th Amendment’s right to equal protection under the law.

New College employees “face discipline, loss of funding and the diminution of the academic freedom that lies at the heart of every successful university,” the lawsuit said.

The college did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

“NCF Freedom is committed to improving New College through a collaborative process that complies with constitutional principles,” Jono Miller, president of the group and an alumnus and former program director at New College, said in a statement. “We intend to act when we see academic freedom, shared governance, or student agency threatened.”


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