South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida | July 26, 2022
TALLAHASSEE — Parents, students and a nonprofit organization have filed a federal lawsuit against four Florida school districts, including Palm Beach County’s, challenging the constitutionality of a new state law that restricts instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in Orlando, seeks to block the school boards in Orange, Indian River, Duval and Palm Beach counties from carrying out the measure (HB 1557), which critics deride as the “don’t say gay” law.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the law violates First Amendment, due process and equal protection rights and improperly chills discussion of issues such as gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Florida enacted HB 1557 to silence and erase lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young people and families,” the lawsuit said. “The law is profoundly vague and requires schools to ban undefined broad categories of speech, based on undefined standards such as ‘appropriateness.’”
The law prevents instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade and requires that such instruction be “age-appropriate … in accordance with state academic standards” in older grades.
Republican lawmakers titled the measure the Parental Rights in Education bill.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Jen and Matt Cousins, parents of four children in Orange County schools; Will Larkins, a rising senior at Winter Park High School who is president of the school’s Queer Student Union; David Dinan and Vik Gongidi, a married same-sex couple who have two children in Indian River County schools; and the non-profit CenterLink Inc., which has members including LGTBQ community centers in Orange, Duval and Palm Beach counties.
Opponents also have challenged the constitutionality of the measure in a federal lawsuit filed in Tallahassee against Gov. Ron DeSantis, the State Board of Education, the Florida Department of Education, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and several school boards. That case is pending.
The case filed Monday, however, only names as defendants the four school boards, with plaintiffs alleging that the law has caused changes in the way districts handle issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
As an example, it said the law has led the Orange County and Palm Beach County districts to remove LGBTQ-related materials from school libraries. Also, it said the Palm Beach County School Board last month adopted a policy to carry out the law.
“Teachers in Palm Beach County schools have already been instructed to review all classroom books and remove any that instruct on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades K-3 and any that are not age or developmentally-appropriate for grades 4-12, including those about which the teacher is ‘unsure,’” the lawsuit said.
In part, the plaintiffs’ attorneys targeted what they allege is vagueness in the law. For instance, they said state standards have not been developed for what would be considered age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate instruction.
“HB 1557′s vagueness inevitably has led to, and continues to lead to, discriminatory and arbitrary application and enforcement across various school districts,” said the lawsuit filed by attorneys from Lambda Legal, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Legal Counsel and the firm Baker McKenzie.
In addition, the complaint said school districts can face costly lawsuits if parents think the law has been violated.
“This vigilante enforcement mechanism, combined with the law’s intentionally vague and sweeping scope, invites parents who oppose any acknowledgment whatsoever of the existence of LGBTQ+ people to sue, resulting in schools acting aggressively to silence students, parents and school personnel,” the lawsuit said. “The law, by design, chills speech and expression that have any connection, however remote, to sexual orientation or gender identity.”