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California professors file suit against DEIA classroom rules

Challengers say new regulations would force the teaching of divisive topics and shut down debate

Bill Blanken, chemistry professor at Reedley College Limelight Photography

California professors file suit against DEIA classroom rules

Six California community college professors asked a federal court last week to block new regulations that could force professors to teach divisive and controversial concepts.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) filed the Aug. 17 lawsuit on behalf of six professors in the State Center Community College District representing three schools: Madera Community College, Reedley College, and Clovis Community College.

The new regulations would require professors across 116 community colleges in California to incorporate “DEIA”—or diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility—and “anti-racist” viewpoints into classroom teaching, according to FIRE’s suit.

“Our clients … want to be able to teach different viewpoints in the classroom, they want debate and discussion—that’s what our education is for. That’s why we have colleges and universities,” said Daniel Ortner, an attorney at FIRE. He added that the California Community Colleges system is “trying to end the debate and put a straightjacket on what they can teach in the classroom.”

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office proposed the new rules in March 2022 and opened a public comment period. FIRE submitted a public comment voicing First Amendment concerns.

On May 5, 2022, the office released a revised version with minor changes, according to FIRE. The free speech advocacy group again raised concerns.

The California Community Colleges Board of Governors voted on May 23, 2022, to officially adopt the amendments. The state chancellor filed the adopted rules with the secretary of state in March 2023.

Starting in spring 2024, community college faculty members will be evaluated on how well they adhere to the diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility policies. Ortner said some worry that professors could be disciplined or lose their jobs for not following them.

Bill Blanken is a chemistry professor at Reedley College. While he has taught for more than 15 years and is tenured, the regulations have made him feel unsure about what his future holds.

Typically, faculty evaluations address topics such as what professors are doing to communicate with students, what committees professors are in, and how they are using technology in class.

Now, Blanken worries that if he doesn’t provide the right responses to questions about these new policies, he runs the risk of disciplinary consequences.

“Do I say the words that I think they want to hear, or do I answer truthfully, along the lines that I believe that all students should be treated equally?” he said. “They find that unacceptable, and then I have to undergo what I’ll call ‘training’ until I answer in a way that they find appropriate.”

He also is unsure how to incorporate the policies into his chemistry classes. “What’s the DEIA anti-racist way of teaching the atomic mass of uranium?” Blanken said. “How do I work DEIA anti-racist dogma into the periodic table?”

Other professors challenging the regulations say the new rules affect their course content. Humanities and social science professors bringing the suit each offer course materials that span “diverse viewpoints to teach students to think critically about these difficult issues,” according to the lawsuit. However, under the regulations, they worry they will have to restrict classroom discussions to align with DEI policies.

Officials warned teachers not to “‘weaponize’ academic freedom” or “inflict curricular trauma,” according to California Community Colleges’ publication DEI in Curriculum: Model Principles and Practices.

The lawsuit states that public colleges and universities can no more mandate conformity on DEI than on foreign policy or free market economics. It cites a 2013 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Demers v. Austin, in which the court ruled that protecting academic teaching and writing is “a special concern of the First Amendment.”

California is the first state to implement regulations this severe, Ortner added.

“California has gone a lot further than anyone else, and that’s why we thought that it was important to sue and hopefully stop them and stop others from following their lead,” he said. “I would not be surprised to see other states, other districts, follow.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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