Lawyers say they’re ready to sue DeSantis over AP African American studies course

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Black leaders delivered a warning to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday that if he doesn’t stop attempts “to exterminate Black history” in Florida classrooms, they would sue him for violating the constitutional rights of students.

“We are here to give notice to Gov. DeSantis,” Ben Crump, a Tallahassee civil rights attorney, said to a cheering crowd of supporters in the Capitol Rotunda as three high school students stood at his side.

They were protesting the announcement last week by the Florida Department of Education that it had rejected a new Advanced Placement elective course on African American studies, developed by the College Board for high school students.

“If he does not negotiate with the College Board to allow AP African American Studies to be taught in the classrooms across the state of Florida, these three young people will be the lead plaintiffs,” said Crump, who has represented families in several high-profile civil rights cases.

Related: DeSantis says AP African American history class pushes political agenda

The College Board is expected to release its updated version of the AP course on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. As a pilot program taught in 60 select classrooms around the country, the board has been soliciting feedback from teachers for modifications to the curriculum. It is unknown how many schools in Florida are involved in the pilot program.

When the state sent its letter of objection to the College Board last week, it gave no reasons for rejecting the class, except to broadly claim that it “lacks educational value.” It suggested that if the College Board revised the course to appease the state, it would reconsider allowing it to be offered for college credit in Florida high schools.

Two days later, after the announcement drew rebukes from the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics accusing the administration of whitewashing history and a “march backward,” Florida Department of Education Commissioner Manny Diaz issued a clarification.

He posted a chart on Twitter that suggested the course was rejected because it included topics such as the Movement for Black Lives, Black feminism, reparations and authors whose writings touch on critical race theory, Black communism and “queer theory.”

“We proudly require the teaching of African-American history,” Diaz wrote, referring to a 1994 law that requires that classes include Black history studies. But, he added, not if it’s “woke indoctrination masquerading as education.”

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DeSantis said topics were attempts at “indoctrination”

On Monday, DeSantis explained that the administration rejected the course because some of the topics were deemed to be an attempt at “indoctrination” by using Black history to push a political agenda.

Crump, who has represented the families of George Floyd, who was killed in 2020 when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, and Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, said he will not pursue a lawsuit if the College Board proposes a curriculum that the state approves.

Related: How Florida’s Ben Crump became the go-to attorney for Trayvon Martin, George Floyd cases

If the Department of Education continues to reject the course, however, the lawsuit would be joined by lawyers for the NAACP, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Pinellas Park attorney Craig Whisenhunt.

Crump said the plaintiffs, three Leon County high school students, will make the same argument made by university professors when a federal judge stopped the DeSantis administration from enforcing the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act.” They argued the law had a chilling effect on speech inside classrooms and was an unconstitutional infringement of professors’ First Amendment rights.

“It is not for the state of Florida to declare which viewpoints will be deemed orthodox, and which will be forbidden from its university classroom,” Crump said.

Department of Education Communications Director Alex Lanfranconi called Crump’s threat “nothing more than a meritless publicity stunt.”

Lanfranconi commended the College Board for modifying its curriculum in the class and suggested, without evidence, that the changes were in response to Florida’s protest.

“AP courses are standardized nationwide, and as a result of Florida’s strong stance against identity politics and indoctrination, students across the country will consequently have access to an historically accurate, unbiased course,” Lanfranconi said.

Black leaders urge College Board not to “cave” to pressure

Whisenhunt cited a case in Arizona when a Republican-led government passed a law restricting Mexican American studies in that state and a federal court struck it down.

“Government doesn’t get to entangle itself in the education of students when it comes to a point of view,” Whisenhunt said. “There are equal protections under the law, and this effort by the governor disproportionately affects only some (people)” and “only intends to limit some content.”

Whisenhunt echoed the comments of several Black leaders who said they hoped the College Board does not “cave” to the governor’s requests.

“It’s a 90-page-long document, outlining the origin story until today, and he picked on four or five things that he took exception to and, truthfully, there’s a discussion worth having on those issues,” he said.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat, said she also had reservations about changes if they are made to address the governor’s complaints.

“We’ve been told that this AP African American history course will be altered and resubmitted, and most likely they’ll make enough changes for the governor to approve it, but at what cost?” she asked. “And are we really OK with Ron DeSantis deciding what’s acceptable for America’s students across the country about Black history?”

The three students spoke about their desire to take the AP course if it is offered.

“Gov. DeSantis decided to deny the potentially life-changing class and effectively censor the freedom of our education and shield us from the truths of our ancestors,” said Elijah Edwards, a SAIL High School sophomore. “I thought, here in this country, we believe in the free exchange of ideas, not the suppression of it.”

“There are many gaps in American history regarding the African American population,” said Victoria McQueen, a junior at Leon High School. “The implementation of an AP African American history class will fill in those gaps.”

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