Civil rights groups say new Florida education law ‘silences and erases’ LGBTQ+ people and families

Story at a glance

  • In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, Florida families argue that the state’s new Parental Rights in Education law – known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law – violates the First Amendment rights of public school students and teachers.

  • Under the law, public school educators are limited in their ability to address sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.

  • Another lawsuit was filed against the law in March.

Civil rights groups including Lambda Legal and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in a lawsuit filed this week argued that a newly-implemented Florida education law “silences and erases” LGBTQ+ students and families.

“The law, by design, chills speech and expression that have any connection, however remote, to sexual orientation or gender identity,” reads the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court on behalf of 12 plaintiffs. The complaint is the latest challenge to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Plaintiffs in the suit are seeking to block the enforcement of the law within four Florida school districts.

Under the law, which was signed by the state’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in March and took effect early this month, public primary school teachers are barred from engaging in classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity. Public school educators through high school may not address either topic in a manner that is not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for their students.

America is changing faster than ever! Add Changing America to your Facebook or Twitter feed to stay on top of the news.

The measure also empowers parents to directly sue a school district if they are dissatisfied with its implementation of the law, which legal scholars have said will likely chill the speech of teachers fearful of unintentionally violating the law.

“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, also filed by the Southern Legal Counsel (SLC) and private counsel Baker McKenzie, reads.

Proponents of the law have argued that the legislation aims to strengthen the rights of parents and shield children from classroom “indoctrination.”

Already, reports of Florida school districts’ attempts to get ahead of potential lawsuits – through which parents may be awarded damages – have surfaced. Last week, the Miami-Dade school board voted to reject two previously approved textbooks on reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases following criticism from parents that the learning materials violated the law.

In a statement released Monday by his attorneys, Will Larkins, a rising senior at Winter Park High School in Orange County and one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, said the new law could embolden “close-minded” parents to push their personal beliefs upon public school students.

“I am concerned that this law will eviscerate any hope of healthy and important discussions about LGBTQ+ issues or historical events, which are already lacking in our schools,” Larkins said. 

Others have also expressed concern that the vague language of the law will be used to erase LGBTQ+ issues from classrooms in a state that saw the nation’s deadliest attack on LGBQT+ individuals when a gunman killed 49 people at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016.

Another lawsuit filed against the law in March calls the measure a “blatantly unconstitutional” attempt to stigmatize and erase LGBTQ+ identities in Florida public schools. The complaint filed by Equality Florida, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and others names DeSantis, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and other education officials as defendants.