Loren Palsgaard and David Richardson, Madera Community College professors who are plaintiffs in the FIRE lawsuit. Photo submitted

Lawsuit seeks to stop California from forcing professors to teach ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit on behalf of six California community college professors to halt new, systemwide regulations forcing professors to espouse and teach politicized conceptions of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Each of the professors teach at one of three Fresno-area community colleges within the State Center Community College District. Under the new regulations, all of the more than 54,000 professors who teach in the California Community Colleges system must incorporate “anti-racist” viewpoints into classroom teaching.

The regulations explicitly require professors to pledge allegiance to contested ideological viewpoints. Professors must “acknowledge” that “cultural and social identities are diverse, fluid, and intersectional,” and they must develop “knowledge of the intersectionality of social identities and the multiple axes of oppression that people from different racial, ethnic, and other minoritized groups face.”

Faculty performance and tenure will be evaluated based on professors’ commitment to and promotion of the government’s viewpoints.

“I’m a professor of chemistry. How am I supposed to incorporate DEI into my classroom instruction?” asked Reedley College professor Bill Blanken. “What’s the ‘anti-racist’ perspective on the atomic mass of boron?”

“These regulations are a totalitarian triple-whammy,” said FIRE attorney Daniel Ortner. “The government is forcing professors to teach and preach a politicized viewpoint they do not share, imposing incomprehensible guidelines, and threatening to punish professors when they cross an arbitrary, indiscernible line.”

DEI requirements are controversial within academia. FIRE’s research indicates that half of professors believe mandatory diversity statements violate academic freedom. The sole mention of academic freedom in California’s model framework frames it an inconvenience, warning professors not to “‘weaponize’ academic freedom” to “inflict curricular trauma on our students.”

“Hearing uncomfortable ideas is not ‘curricular trauma,’ and teaching all sides of an issue is not ‘weaponizing’ academic freedom,” said Loren Palsgaard, a professor of English at Madera Community College and a plaintiff in the suit. “That’s just called ‘education.’”

An official glossary of terms released by the state makes plain that the “anti-racist” views it mandates are highly ideological. Indeed, the definition for “anti-racism” states that “persons that say they are ‘not a racist’ are in denial.” California declares that “color-blindness,” or the belief that “the best way to end prejudice and discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity,” is itself a problem because it “perpetuates existing racial inequities and denies systematic racism.”

Even a professor saying something as benign as “I grade my class based on merit” is suspect under the regulations. “Merit is embedded in the ideology of Whiteness and upholds race-based structural inequality,” the glossary claims. “Merit protects White privilege under the guise of standards … and as highlighted by anti-affirmative action forces.”

FIRE first expressed concerns with the California regulations when they were proposed in 2022, warning in a public comment that the new rules would “unconstitutionally require faculty to profess allegiance to and to promote a contested set of ideological views.”

The response from the chancellor’s office was woefully inadequate, denying that the chancellor or the board of governors could ever violate a professor’s academic freedom. The regulations are now in effect in the State Center Community College District, and FIRE’s clients have already been forced to change their syllabi and teaching materials, lest they face repercussions.

FIRE’s California suit comes almost a year after FIRE filed a lawsuit against Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” as it applies to college classrooms. In that case, Florida’s legislature, like California Community Colleges, sought to dictate what views public university professors can express when teaching. In November 2022, a federal court granted FIRE’s motion for a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the Stop WOKE Act, calling it “positively dystopian.”

“Whether it’s states forcing professors to teach DEI concepts or states forcing them not to teach concepts that lawmakers deem ‘woke,’ the government can’t tell university professors what views they are or aren’t allowed to debate in the classroom,” said FIRE attorney Jessie Appleby.

FIRE is representing professors James Druley, David Richardson, Linda de Morales, and Loren Palsgaard, of Madera Community College, Bill Blanken, of Reedley College, and Michael Stannard, of Clovis Community College. The defendants are California Community Colleges Chancellor Sonya Christian, the State Board of Governors, State Center Community College District Chancellor Carole Goldsmith and the District Board of Trustees.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.