Activist groups file lawsuit against HB 1775

October 20, 2021

Ray Carter

A coalition of activist groups has filed a federal lawsuit challenging an Oklahoma state law that prohibits public schools from teaching children that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.”

The plaintiffs claim such prohibitions, contained in House Bill 1775, severely restrict “discussions on race and gender in Oklahoma’s elementary, secondary, and higher education schools,” that the language of the law is “unclear,” and that the law violates school employees’ First Amendment right to free speech.

“HB 1775 is an unvarnished attempt to silence the experiences and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ people, and other groups who have long faced exclusion and marginalization in our institutions, including in our schools,” said Genevieve Bonadies Torres, associate director of the Educational Opportunities Project with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Lilly Amechi, a representative of the Black Emergency Response Team (BERT), declared that the law “is a direct attack on the education experience of the Black community specifically, and marginalized communities at large on campus,” and that the law “erases the legacy of discrimination.”

Supporters of HB 1775 said those filing the lawsuit mischaracterize the law and its effects.

“Racism is not an Oklahoma value and it has no place in our schools,” said Ryan Walters, who serves as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s cabinet secretary of education and is also a longtime teacher. “HB 1775 ensures that our students can receive an honest depiction of our past, while protecting them from harmful slander promoted by radical ideologues. As a history teacher and Oklahoma Teacher of the Year finalist, I understand the complex history of our great nation. I also know that our teachers can accurately teach about our past without prejudging those responsible for our future. I applaud Governor Stitt and Attorney General (John) O’Connor for continuing to stand for Oklahoma students and join them in fighting this frivolous lawsuit.”

House Bill 1775 bans K-12 schools from requiring or making part of a course any material that declares “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The law includes several other similar provisions, such as banning instruction that tells children an individual “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.” It also prohibits public schools from teaching that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.”

The legislation also prohibits Oklahoma colleges from requiring students to “engage in any form of mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling” and bans any “orientation or requirement that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or a bias on the basis of race or sex.”

Those bringing the lawsuit include the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Oklahoma, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and pro bono counsel Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP on behalf of plaintiffs the Black Emergency Response Team (BERT); the University of Oklahoma Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (OU-AAUP); the Oklahoma State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP-OK); the American Indian Movement (AIM) Indian Territory, a high school student, and Oklahoma public high school teachers Anthony Crawford and Regan Killackey.

The lawsuit states that HB 1775’s provisions, such as the ban on teaching children that an individual “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex,” are “viewpoint discriminatory provisions.”

The lawsuit claims that HB 1775 has “chilled and censored speech that strikes at the heart of public education and the nation’s democratic institutions,” and that schools are now “blacklisting books” such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

Because Oklahoma parents may file formal complaints regarding any perceived violation of HB 1775, the lawsuit claims the new law “has declared open season on all elementary and secondary school educators and educational institutions.”

The lawsuit also states, “HB 1775 was enacted with the particular intent of harming historically marginalized students, and the Act has had its intended effect.”

Regarding HB 1775’s ban on teaching that “traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race,” the plaintiffs’ claim it “is unclear what this means.”

The lawsuit also claims HB 1775 violates school employees’ First Amendment rights “because it prohibits educators from teaching about specific concepts on the topics of race and sex, and it imposes restrictions on the ideas that students may be exposed to in public schools.”

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.

Sen. David Bullard, a Durant Republican and principal author of HB 1775, said the lawsuit demonstrates why HB 1775’s passage was necessary.

“The ACLU and other radical liberal politicians and activists assured us that Critical Race Theory (CRT) was not being taught and there was no intent to ever teach this horrible doctrine in the future,” Bullard said. “This lawsuit by the ACLU is proof positive that this law was in fact necessary to protect our children from this radical indoctrination. No child should be taught that they should be ashamed due to the pigmentation of their skin, and no child should be told they are responsible for the actions of the past.”

Bullard, a 15-year history teacher, said those claiming HB 1775 prevents educators from teaching history or books like To Kill a Mockingbird ignore the plain language of the law.

“If one believes they must shame a student for their race or sex, or convince them there is a superior race, or any of the other concepts mentioned in the bill, they do not need to be teaching kids,” Bullard said.

NOTE: This story was updated since initial publication to include statements from Sen. David Bullard.