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Dive Brief: 

  • Six California community college professors filed a lawsuit Thursday against leaders of the state’s public two-year system to halt recent rules they allege require instructors to adopt certain viewpoints on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. 
  • The DEIA policies require over 54,000 professors in the California Community Colleges system to incorporate concepts such as anti-racism into their instruction, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech nonprofit that filed the lawsuit on the instructors’ behalf. 
  • These new regulations violate the professors’ rights to free speech, the lawsuit alleges. It asks a federal judge to declare the rules unconstitutional and block the system from enforcing them. 

Dive Insight: 

In March 2022, California Community Colleges released a proposal that would require its institutions to evaluate faculty and grant tenure in part based on their commitment to certain DEIA principles, according to the lawsuit. 

At the time, FIRE raised concerns that the proposed regulations would violate professors’ First Amendment rights. But the system rolled out the policy with minimal changes just a couple of months later, the organization says. 

The State Center Community College District, in which the suing faculty members work, imposed the new rules through a faculty contract, according to the complaint. Now, the faculty must teach in ways that “reflect DEIA and anti-racist principles” the contract says

The system also rolled out a glossary of DEIA terms, which defines “anti-racism” in part as policies that lead to racial equity. 

“The DEIA Rules do not explain how a professor can tell if a teaching practice is ‘anti-racist’ or leads to ‘racial equity,’ nor do the DEIA Rules explain what a professor is to do when a good-faith debate exists as to whether a policy ‘lead[s] to racial equity,’” the lawsuit argues. 

A spokesperson for the chancellor’s office of California Community Colleges said it does not comment on pending litigation. 

“We are being represented by the California Attorney General’s Office,” the spokesperson said via email. “Our response opposing the plaintiffs’ request will be in court filings expected to be filed in the next day or so.”

The lawsuit also names leaders of the State Center Community College District as defendants. A spokesperson for the district said Friday that it hasn’t been served the complaint yet. 

The lawsuit criticized other terms provided in the system’s DEIA glossary as well. 

For instance, the glossary partly defines “merit” as a concept that “protects White privilege under the guise of standards,” according to a copy of the document in the complaint. It points to standardized testing as one example, arguing these exams are biased against racial minority groups. 

Some of the professors bringing the lawsuit said they worry about how this guidance will impact their classroom. 

James Druley, a philosophy professor, contends it will be impossible to teach ethics without discussing merit as a “positive moral concept,” according to the complaint. Meanwhile, Linda de Morales, a chemistry professor, voiced concerns that she will be punished for emphasizing to her students that they need to earn their grades. 

The instructors also took issue with the system’s guidance on how to implement the new DEIA policy in their classrooms. That guidance, which came out in June 2022, tells professors to avoid inflicting “curricular trauma” on their students under the guise of academic freedom. 

The directive has led some of the professors to change their curriculum, according to the lawsuit. 

Loren Palsgaard, an English professor, plans to no longer assign Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to students because it includes a racial slur and offers perspectives different from the DEIA policies — potentially running afoul of the curricular trauma guidance, the complaint argues. 

These types of rules stand to broadly restrict speech, FIRE contends. 

“The number of books, articles, or other course material that can be said to inflict ‘curricular trauma’ is nearly endless,” the lawsuit says. “Virtually any book that challenges the reader’s engrained perspective or worldview can be censored under this open-ended mandate.”

FIRE has recently targeted other state higher education policies. Last year, the organization challenged a Florida law restricting how public colleges and K-12 instructors can discuss race and gender, commonly known as the Stop Woke Act. 

In November 2022, a federal judge granted the organization’s request to block the enforcement of the law at public colleges. That preliminary injunction is still in place. 

“Whether it’s states forcing professors to teach DEI concepts or states forcing them not to teach concepts that lawmakers deem ‘woke,’ the government can’t tell university professors what views they are or aren’t allowed to debate in the classroom,” FIRE attorney Jessie Appleby said in a Thursday statement.