Oklahoma’s recently passed law that limits how public school students learn about race and gender will have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights and restrict honest conversations about American history, according to a federal lawsuit aimed at blocking the measure.
The lawsuit – backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of Oklahoma civil rights and Indigenous groups – is the first constitutional challenge to so-called “critical race theory” statutes following a wave of Republican-endorsed legislation to prohibit teachers from discussing racism and sexism in schools.
Oklahoma was the first state to pass such a law, which invokes a largely obscure legal framework to address the legacy of slavery and racism in institutions and is not part of K-12 curriculums.
Though the laws do not directly reference the theory, it has been used as a catch-all term from right-wing media and criticism of concepts like The 1619 Project and in a coordinated campaign from conservative activists aided by dozens of newly formed local and national groups, conservative think tanks, law firms and GOP lawmakers to raise the issue at school board meetings.
Oklahoma’s law bars any teachings that cast anyone as “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or make them feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex.
Eight GOP-controlled states have passed similar laws this year, and lawmakers in more than half of all US states proposed related legislation.
The Independent has requested comment from Governor Kevin Stitt’s office.
Carly Atchison, a spokesperson for the governor, told USA Today that “it’s par for the course that when something goes against the left’s liberal agenda activist groups attempt to come into Oklahoma and challenge our laws and our way of life but [the governor] stands by his decision” to sign the measure in to law and “ban teaching our children that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex”.
After signing the bill into law in May, the governor said in a video statement that he believes “not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex”.
Following the bill’s passage, Oklahoma schools have been instructed to avoid discussing segregation or historic acts of racist violence like the 1921 Tulsa massacre, to no longer use terms like “diversity” in classrooms or drop diversity trainings among staff, or to remove ubiquitous works like To Kill a Mockingbird from curriculums, according to the ACLU and plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Oklahoma teacher Regan Killacky said in a statement that the law “limits my ability to teach an inclusive and complete history within the walls of my classroom, ultimately restricting the exact type of learning environment all young people deserve – one free from censorship or discrimination”.
Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said Oklahoma’s law “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”.
“The bill was intended to inflame a political reaction, not further a legitimate educational interest,” he said in a statement. “These infirmities in the law are all the more troubling because the bill applies to public colleges and universities, where the First Amendment is especially protective of academic freedom.”
Genevieve Bonadies Torres, associate director of the Educational Opportunities Project with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the measure an “unvarnished attempt” to suppress perspectives from Black, Indigenous and LGBT+ people.
The lawsuit has urged the court to declare the law unconstitutional under the First and 14th Amendments and issue a preliminary injunction to immediately halt its enforcement.