Court forbids enforcement of Arizona law restricting ethnic studies classes in grade schools

By January 22, 2018

In December, a federal district court in Arizona entered a permanent injunction against the state of Arizona and Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction and other state officials  from enforcing a law banning the teaching of ethnic studies classes in K–12 schools. This appears to mark the close of a case that has been winding its way through the courts for the past seven years. This case is of interest to FIRE because it represents an attempt by a state legislative body to regulate curricula due to ideological concerns.

A group of teachers and students sued after the law was passed in 2010, and while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that most of the law was constitutional, parts of it raised First and Fourteenth Amendment concerns. Last July, the United States District Court for the District of Arizona held a trial to determine whether the application of the portion of the law prohibiting classes “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments as applied to Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies program.

In August, the court entered a Memorandum of Decision, which contained the court’s findings of facts and conclusions of law. In its decision, the court held that the decision to enact the law, and its enforcement, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments because the law’s enforcement and enactment were motivated by a discriminatory purpose. With regard to the plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment claims, the court held that the “passage and enforcement of the law against the MAS [Mexican-American Studies] program were motivated by anti-Mexican-American sentiments.” In its holding, the court relied on the ways in which the law was enforced as well as public statements — including blog entries that provided “direct evidence that racial animus infected the decision to enact [the law]” — made by a member of the state legislature who later became the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

With regard to the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims, the court noted that “[s]tudents have a First Amendment right to receive information and ideas,” and that this right applies in the context of curricula. Accordingly, “[a] plaintiff may establish a First Amendment violation by proving that the reasons offered by the state, though pedagogically legitimate on their face, in fact serve to mask other illicit motivations.” The plaintiffs were able to prove that their First Amendment rights were violated because the evidence showed that the law was enacted and enforced because of racial bias, in an effort to make political gains.

The issue of legislative interference in curriculum design is not limited to K–12 schools. FIRE has seen and commented on attempts by state legislative bodies attempting to regulate what can be taught at colleges and universities. For example, in December 2016, we wrote about an attempt to withhold funding from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which offered a class on racism titled “The Problem of Whiteness.” And back in 2014, we wrote about South Carolina’s decision to punish the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate for including LGBT-themed books as required reading for freshmen.

Because it regulated K–12 curricula, the Arizona law was outside of FIRE’s mission to defend student and faculty rights on college and university campuses.  However, because we know that K–12 developments often end up being replicated in the collegiate context, FIRE will continue to keep an eye on this case and similar attempts. We’ll update our readers about future developments that might affect higher education.