Florida International University Upholds Legal Equality: Abandons Racial and Ethnic Requirements for Language Courses

February 6, 2002

MIAMI, FL—Florida International University (FIU), responding to FIRE, has issued a strong and unqualified defense of legal equality. Addressing the concerns raised by FIRE President Alan Charles Kors, who challenged a racial and ethnic requirement for several language courses, FIU General Counsel Thomas Mead Santoro made changes to the requirements for the courses to ensure that FIU complies with its ethical obligations, not to mention its obligations to federal and state statutes and regulations, and to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

In September 2001, a student contacted FIRE with concerns about the requirements for three courses for students with proficiency in Spanish, but without formal understanding of the structure of the language. The course catalog descriptions limited enrollment in these to “Hispanic bilinguals educated in the U.S….whose mother tongue is Spanish,” “U.S. Hispanic bilinguals,” and “U.S. Hispanic Bilinguals Only.”

FIRE’s letter to FIU President Modesto A. Maidique explained the unacceptability of such restrictions: “Substitute ‘Swahili…for US blacks only,’ ‘French…for US whites only,’ and ‘Hebrew…for US Jewish Bilinguals only’ in those descriptions to understand how morally inappropriate these requirements are and how they violate, categorically, the equal protection and individual rights that are at the heart of a decent university.” Underscoring FIU’s moral and (as a public university) legal and constitutional obligations to guarantee equal protection for its students, FIRE called upon FIU to remove national origin, ethnic origin, place of birth, and race as requirements for its courses. FIU now has done so, substituting the category of individual measurable proficiency for group identity.

“This is a vindication of legal equality in the classroom,” said Kors. “Previously, a student who was not the ‘right’ ethnicity could be prohibited from taking these classes. The days of racial or ethnic exclusion in schools belong in the past—not in a twenty-first century university. Fortunately, FIU recognized and agreed with this, and it willingly responded to our concerns.”

FIRE’s lengthy and quiet involvement on behalf of the student finally secured from General Counsel Santoro an affirmation of that University’s commitment to legal equality. In a letter to FIRE, Santoro stated, “the university at no time intended to do other than inform its catalogue readers of the nature of the preparation needed for successful performance in the listed courses.” However, so that no one would be deterred from taking a class because of a perceived ethnic requirement, he announced that FIU would now change the course descriptions to allow native speakers “or equivalent.”

“This change ensures that the legitimate educational goals of the courses can be satisfied without discriminating invidiously against individual students in the process,” said Kors. “Our legal and constitutional protections from racial discrimination are fragile possessions, not to be abandoned lightly. FIU’s principled willingness to correct an error of judgment should serve as a model for college administrators across the country.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of freedom of expression, individual rights, due process rights, legal equality, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts at Florida International University, and elsewhere, can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

Contact:
Thor L. Halvorssen, Executive Director, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org
Todd Martinez-Padilla Simmons, Director, FIU Integrated Media Group: 305-348-2716; simmonst@fiu.edu

Schools: Florida International University Cases: Florida International University: Racial and Ethnic Restrictions for Class Enrollment