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Arkansas judge delivers mixed ruling in critical race theory ban case

Federal courthouse
U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky on Tuesday partially granted a preliminary injunction on a law dictating how race can be taught in Arkansas schools.

A judge returned a mixed verdict Tuesday in a lawsuit challenging part of the Arkansas LEARNS Act.

U.S. District Judge Lee P. Rudofsky did partially grant a preliminary injunction over a law dictating how race can be taught in Arkansas schools. The injunction only applies to the two teachers who brought the suit.

Section 16 of the Arkansas LEARNS Act prohibits schools from teaching “indoctrination,” “critical race theory,” or any curriculum that encourages discrimination. Rudofsky did not think the law was worded in such a way as to prevent teachers from discussing certain topics including critical race theory, as long as they were not forcing beliefs on students.

At a hearing last week, attorneys for the plaintiffs said the language in the law is too vague, and creates a chilling effect on teaching. They are bringing the federal lawsuit on behalf of teachers, students, and their families. Two of the plaintiffs are Little Rock Central High School teachers; Ruthie Walls, who teaches African American History, and Colton Gilbert, who teaches debate.

Walls’ AP African American Studies class was briefly removed from official state course offerings after Section 16 of the LEARNS Act took effect. It has now been fully reinstated. Walls also says she has decided to remove books from her class like "The Color Purple" out of fear that they violated Section 16. Attorneys argued that Gilbert may not be able to allow his students to debate different opinions in a speech and debate class.

Attorneys for the State of Arkansas disagreed. They said the law does not prevent teaching about race in schools. Solicitor General Nicholas Bronni told the court Section 16 "in no way limits the access to information.”

Judge Rudofsky said this is “an unusual First Amendment case.” But, he said, the defense made their point “crystal clear.”

“Section 16 does not prohibit teachers from teaching about, using or referring to critical race theory, or any other theory, ideology, or idea,” the ruling said.

But, Rudofsky said he also said he wanted to “give comfort to teachers across the state.” The preliminary injunction said no teacher should be disciplined for teaching about topics that could be classified as “critical race theory.” Although, he had seen no examples of this happening.

A large part of Rudofsky's reasonings for the ruling come out of Section 16’s use of the word “compel.” The law says a teacher can not teach “prohibited indoctrination," defined as communication that “compels a person to adopt, affirm, or profess an idea in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Rudofsky said he interprets the word compel to mean the same thing as the word “force.” He clarified it in the ruling that the word “compel” means “forcefully or irresistibly urging a student to express a strong belief in, to confess allegiance to, or to begin practicing.” He said teachers are not allowed to compel a student to believe in something based on the way the suit is phrased.

For example, Rudofsky said the teachers in the suit would not be able to threaten a student's grade if they believed in or rejected a specific ideology. They are also not allowed to give one student preferential treatment, denigrate a student over their views or beg a student to agree with them.

The judge mentioned allegations that students were being denied access to certain materials in their AP African American Studies class. He said there is “no question” that the preliminary injunction also applies to them. He ended by saying his injunction "does not reach the enforcement and implementation of the Governor’s Executive Order to Prohibit Indoctrination and Critical Race Theory in Schools.”

A preliminary injunction was not granted on other parts of the lawsuit. Plaintiffs are arguing the law constitutes a racial discrimination under the 14th Amendment. Rudofsky said this did not constitute the legal standard of “irreparable harm.”

He also agreed with criticism the defense brought up during the hearing that they had taken too long to bring the suit. Section 16 became active in March of 2023.

“Thirteen months is a long time to wait to seek ‘extraordinary relief,’” Rudofsky said.

Attorney General Tim Griffin said "the very limited injunction merely prohibits doing what Arkansas was never doing in the first place.”

A larger trial on the merits of the law will be held at a later date.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.