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Lawsuit: Critical race theory ban in Okla. schools violates Constitution

Lawsuit: Critical race theory ban in Okla. schools violates Constitution
A statue of Dred and Harriet Scott is seen outside of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, Mo., on June 19. Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for the couple's freedom in a landmark 1857 case that came to be known as the "Dred Scott Decision." File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 20 (UPI) -- A group of students and educators have filed a lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma, accusing it of violating their constitutional rights with a law that restricts the teaching of race and gender in classrooms.

The suit is the first federal challenge against such a state ban on critical race theory in schools.

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The lawsuit was filed against H.B. 1775 on Tuesday by several civil liberty groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, which say the law is unconstitutional because it's racially discriminatory. It also says the ban infringes upon students' and educators' right to free expression.

The law, which does not mention critical race theory by name, seeks to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and sex by barring teachers and administrators in public schools from teaching that one race or sex is inherently "racist, sexist or oppressive," and that an individual is responsible for actions committed in the past by a member of their race or sex.

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It also bars schools from adopting diversity, equity or inclusion plans that include these topics.

When Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the bill into law in May, he said the law is needed "now more than ever" to bring society together.

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"I firmly believe that not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex," he said.

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Opponents of the law say it does the opposite of its stated goal.

"H.B. 1775 is an unvarnished attempt to silence the experiences and perspectives of Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ+ people and other groups who have long faced exclusion and marginalization in our institutions, including in our schools," Genevieve Bonadies Torres, associate director of the Educational Opportunities Project with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.

According to the lawsuit, the Oklahoma law bars the teaching of gender and race through the use of "language that is simultaneously sweeping and unclear," concerning some teachers about what they can discuss with students.

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"The act's confounding language is not only facially unconstitutional but its application has also chilled and censored speech that strikes at the heart of public education and the nation's democratic institutions," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says the law advises teachers to avoid terms like "diversity" and "White privilege," while administrators have removed texts by Black and women authors, such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird and Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, from reading lists to avoid raising issues of race and gender.

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The plaintiffs have asked the court to declare the bill unconstitutional under the First and 14th Amendments and block it with a preliminary injunction.

"All young people deserve to learn an inclusive and accurate history in schools, free from censorship or discrimination," Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement. "H.B. 1775 is so poorly drafted -- in places it is literally indecipherable -- that districts and teachers have no way of knowing what concepts and ideas are prohibited."

According to the Brookings Institution, Oklahoma is one of eight states to pass such a ban, and nearly 20 others having introduced similar legislation.

Oklahoma state Rep. Kevin West, a Republican and one of the bill's authors, said the suit is "full of half-truths and in some cases blatant lies."

"The law ensures that all history is taught in schools without shaming the children of today into blaming themselves for problems of the past," he said, according to The Oklahoman.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Conner said he looks forward to defending the ban in court.

"The Legislature and governor were wise to prevent the teaching of our children that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex," he tweeted. "I look forward to defending H.B. 1775 against these activists who do not share our Oklahoma values."

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