Florida targets UCF professors arguments on race instruction law

Professor suing over Stop WOKE Act

UCF’s removal of anti-racist statements upsets some on campus

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Attorneys for the state are trying to convince a federal judge to reject a University of Central Florida professor’s arguments in a battle about a new state law that restricts the way race-related concepts can be taught in classrooms.

In court documents filed Friday, the state contended that Robert Cassanello, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, does not have legal standing to challenge the law and that his request for a preliminary injunction should be rejected.

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Among other things, the documents contend Cassanello has not shown that he would be harmed by the controversial law — which Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act. The law lists a series of race-related concepts and says it would constitute discrimination if students are subjected to instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels” them to believe the concepts.

“Dr. Cassanello has made clear that the foundation of his teaching methodology is not to endorse or advocate the arguments and theories in material he assigns, but rather to foster in his students the ‘critical thinking’ skills that will enable them to think for themselves,” the state’s attorneys wrote Friday. “Because the act (the law) prohibits only the endorsement of the prohibited concepts — and expressly permits discussion of them — even if some reading material that Dr. Cassanello assigns expressly endorses one of the eight concepts, his act of assigning the material would clearly not violate the act.”

Cassanello and other plaintiffs, including public-school teachers and a student, filed the lawsuit in April after DeSantis signed the law (HB 7), arguing that it violated First Amendment rights and was unconstitutionally vague. They also challenged rules approved last year by the State Board of Education that included banning the use of critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American society and institutions.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in June denied requests by the teacher and student for a preliminary injunction against the law but ordered attorneys to file additional briefs on Cassanello’s request for an injunction. In July, Walker rejected requests by the state to dismiss parts of the lawsuit dealing with the educational system.

Another part of the law places restrictions on race-related concepts in workplace training. Businesses have filed a separate challenge to that part of the law, and Walker heard arguments last week about whether to grant a preliminary injunction. He had not ruled as of Monday morning.

As an example of how the law addresses the education system, part of it labels instruction discriminatory if students are led to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

As another example, the law seeks to prohibit instruction that would cause students to “feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

In a June 28 brief supporting Cassanello’s request for a preliminary injunction, his attorneys wrote that the law and related regulations “employ an invidious label to those who engage in protected speech by labeling such expression ‘discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin or sex.’ The reputational harm of being labeled as someone who engages in race discrimination is self-evident — particularly for someone like Dr. Cassanello who has spent his entire career researching and teaching about the civil rights movement.”

“In sum, the regulations require universities to adopt policies prohibiting discussion of concepts Dr. Cassanello intends to offer in his classroom instruction and conduct investigations if anyone reports that he ‘espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels a student or employee to believe any of the concepts,’” the brief said.

But a document filed Friday by attorneys for the state pointed to an Aug. 5 deposition of Cassanello and said, in part, he has “failed to demonstrate that he intends to endorse any of the prohibited concepts in his classes.”

“Specifically, Dr. Cassanello has failed to show that any injury is imminent as a result of the act because, by Dr. Cassanello’s own admission, he does not believe, and has no intention of endorsing, any of the concepts that the act prohibits,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “To establish standing, Dr. Cassanello must show that he has suffered an injury-in-fact; that the injury is fairly traceable to the allegedly unlawful conduct; and that a favorable decision will likely redress the injury.”


About the Author:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.