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Judge Says State Can’t Block Teachers From Discussing Critical Race Theory

A federal judge has ruled Arkansas cannot prevent two high school teachers from discussing critical race theory in the classroom, but he stopped short of more broadly blocking the state from enforcing its ban on “indoctrination” in public schools.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky issued a narrow preliminary injunction Tuesday evening against the ban—one of several changes adopted under an education overhaul that Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law last year.

The prohibition is being challenged by two teachers and two students at Little Rock Central High School, site of the 1957 desegregation crisis.

In his 50-page ruling, Rudofsky said the state’s arguments make it clear the law doesn’t outright “prevent classroom instruction that teaches, uses, or refers to any theory, idea, or ideology.”

His ruling prohibits the state from disciplining the teachers for teaching, mentioning or discussing critical race theory—an academic framework dating to the 1970s that centers on the idea that racism is embedded in the nation’s institutions.

The theory is not a fixture of K-12 education—though some critics claims its tenets have influenced curricula—and Arkansas’ ban does not define what constitutes critical race theory.

Rudofsky said although his ruling was narrow, it “should give comfort to teachers across the state (and to their students) that Section 16 does not prohibit teachers from teaching about, using, or referring to critical race theory or any other theory, ideology, or idea so long as the teachers do not compel their students to accept as valid such theory, ideology, or idea.”

The decision still would bar the teachers from taking steps such as grading on the basis on whether a student accepts or rejects a theory or giving preferential treatment to students on whether they accept a theory.

Both the state and attorneys for the teachers claimed the ruling as an initial victory in ongoing litigation over the law.

“We are very happy that the court has acknowledged that the plaintiffs have brought colorable constitutional claims forward,” said Mike Laux, an attorney for the teachers and students who filed suit. “With this notch in our belt, we look forward to prosecuting this incredibly important case going forward.”

David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law—also representing the plaintiffs in the case—said the ruling “has essentially gutted Arkansas’ classroom censorship law to render the law virtually meaningless.”

Republican Attorney General Tim Griffin said the ruling “merely prohibits doing what Arkansas was never doing in the first place.”

“Today’s decision confirms what I’ve said all along. Arkansas law doesn’t prohibit teaching the history of segregation, the civil rights movement, or slavery,” Griffin said in a statement.

The lawsuit stems from the state’s decision that an Advanced Placement course on African American Studies would not count toward state credit during the 2023-2024 school year. The teachers’ lawsuit argues the state’s ban is so vague that it forces them to self-censor what they teach to avoid running afoul of it.

Arkansas is among several Republican-led states that have placed restrictions on how race is taught in the classroom, including prohibitions on critical race theory. Tennessee educators filed a similar lawsuit last year challenging that state’s sweeping bans on teaching certain concepts of race, gender and bias in classroom.

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