The OU Black Emergency Response Team and American Association of University Professors are challenging House Bill 1775 — a bill limiting instruction on gender and race-based topics — in a lawsuit with a coalition of state civil rights groups, according to a Wednesday press release.
The suit is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and pro-bono counsel Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP. It argues that HB 1775 “chills” students’ and educators’ right to talk about these issues and prevents them from having a complete dialogue about U.S. history.
ACLU of Oklahoma’s Legal Director Megan Lambert said the chapter has advocated against HB 1775 since the time when legislatures were still talking about proposing the bill. She said the union viewed the bill as “an affront to the First Amendment” and immediately began gathering people to challenge it when it became law May 10.
Because HB 1775 applies to both universities and K-12 schools, Lambert said the ACLU wanted the lawsuit to encompass the “broad scope of harm it has” on all education levels.
BERT was brought onto the lawsuit because HB 1775 “directly attacks” the organization, Lambert said. The bill prohibits “orientations or requirements that present any form of certain stereotyping or bias,” which directly affects the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training BERT demanded and won during its sit-in at Evans Hall in February 2020.
“(The ACLU of Oklahoma) reached out to BERT because we knew this bill, in its Oklahoma iteration, was a direct response to their successful activism for safety on campus,” Lambert said.
A faculty task force also recommended the development of a semester-long general education course in March 2020 called “Gateway to Belonging.” Following the passage of HB 1775, OU President Joseph Harroz said the university had to adjust its plans by creating a suite of three courses, including Gateway to Belonging, Global Perspectives and Engagement and Ethical Leadership Development.
Now, freshmen are required to take one of the courses to fulfill a Core V General Education three-hour credit.
“Because that word stereotype (in HB 1775) is so broad, OU — out of an abundance of caution and understanding the motivation for the bill — moved that course from mandatory to voluntary, and that’s a direct harm on BERT, and we wanted to make sure that the harm they face (from HB 1775) was represented as well as their work (at the Evans Hall sit-in) was respected and included,” Lambert said.
In context of OU’s celebration of Free Speech Week, BERT Director D’India Brown wrote in a press release Thursday that HB 1775 seeks to “degrade the quality of (Oklahoma's) education” by hindering students’ freedom of speech. She wrote that BERT won’t back down until the bill is abolished.
“(HB 1775’s) glamorization of history not only prevents (students from becoming competent leaders), but also directly puts students of color, LGBTQ+, Indigenous communities, and other marginalized communities in harm’s way when inclusive education is censored,” Brown wrote. “The opportunity to learn and talk about our histories, as they happened, is not only impactful for all students but also a well-earned and deserved right.”
Lambert said some of the ACLU’s OU clients who are Black women have reported “an increase in harassment, both on the basis of their race and their gender” this semester since HB 1775 went into effect.
“I want to be clear that the harm of this legislation is significant in the classroom, but it extends beyond that,” Lambert said. “We as humans extend beyond the classroom. We take the lessons that we learn outside the classroom, and so we take the consequences of the lessons that we don’t learn.”
OU-AAUP President Micheal Givel said he agrees with the ACLU’s characterization of the bill, as he feels it as “a complete and utter affront” to the First and Fourteenth Amendments and, therefore, should be opposed by anyone from the U.S., regardless of their political beliefs.
Givel said the OU-AAUP “advocates for academic freedom” and voted “overwhelmingly and unanimously” during its meetings to participate in the lawsuit. He also said the bill “arbitrarily targets” university professors, staff and faculty who teach “controversial topics,” and that they are not here to be “elected politicians’ sock puppets.”
“(Professors are) not here just to teach the good,” Givel said. “Oklahoma has a checkered past, for instance. It’s not just about the good things that have happened here. We’ve had the Tulsa Race Massacre, Norman, Oklahoma, has been a sundown town from 1889 (to) 1967, the Ku Klux Klan and its terrorism (in) the 1920s was an extremely prominent and powerful political force. All of these things cannot be erased from history.”
In response to Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor’s tweet saying HB 1775 represents “Oklahoma values,” Givel said he disagrees with O’Connor’s understanding of the bill and said these values represent only one side of the state’s culture.
“The plaintiffs are all Oklahomans. We represent key Oklahoma values, as well,” Givel said. “Whose culture (is he) talking about? Is it just one part of the culture, or is it everybody’s culture? Native American, African American, women, LGBTQ+, caucasians? We all live here, we all have our backgrounds, our cultures. I do, you do, everybody else does.”
If the lawsuit fails in front of the district court, Lambert said the ACLU of Oklahoma will continue moving up to higher courts, even if that takes them to the Supreme Court.
“Lawmakers do not have the ability to restrict conversations in classrooms without a fight,” Lambert said. “And, even if we end up losing, we want folks to know we're watching, we're fighting and we're not going anywhere.”
Lambert said the ACLU is hosting a town hall open to the public at noon on Oct. 25. She said she, some of the lawsuit's plaintiffs and one of the attorneys will be present to answer questions about the suit.