Judge sides in part with plaintiffs suing to stop Arkansas’ ban on ‘critical race theory’ and ‘indoctrination’

A federal judge in Little Rock issued an order Tuesday ensuring that two high school teachers who are suing the state over an Arkansas law banning “critical race theory” and “indoctrination” in the classroom will not be not punished or prevented from teaching controversial topics. but he stopped short of blocking the law statewide.

The U.S. District Judge’s ruling Lee Rudofsky followed a hearing last week in the lawsuit, which seeks to overturn Section 16 of the Arkansas LEARNS Act. It does not call into question other elements of the law for an in-depth overhaul of education, which was a centerpiece of Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders political program. The lawsuit is in its early stages, and Rudofsky’s ruling Tuesday related only to the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction to block Section 16.

The plaintiffs in this case are teachers from Central High School Ruthie Walls And Colton Gilbert, with two Central High students, their mothers and the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP.

The lawsuit cites the state’s decision last summer to stop offering state credit for a pilot AP African American studies course, which Walls teaches at Central. The Arkansas Department of Education said at the time that the class may violate Section 16 of LEARNS, which was passed by the state Legislature in spring 2023.

Since then, the Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva — one of the defendants in the lawsuit, along with Sanders and members of the State Board of Education — claimed the state’s actions last year only concerned the AP class being in a pilot phase and avoided mentioning “indoctrination” or “critical race theory”

Lawyers for the Arkansas attorney general’s office told Rudofsky at last week’s hearing that Section 16 was much narrower than critics claimed. It does not seek to outright ban certain topics or ideas, they said, but to prevent situations in which a teacher imposes indoctrination on a student, for example by penalizing the student for not accepting the validity of these ideas.

In his 50-page ruling, Rudofsky said he granted the state’s request in this regard, justifying the narrow enforcement of his order.

The state has “made clear that…Section 16 does not prevent classroom instruction that teaches, uses, or refers to any theory, idea, or ideology,” he wrote. Any judge in the future would almost certainly prevent the state “from changing its position on the scope of Section 16,” Rudofsky said.

“Accordingly, although the court’s preliminary injunction will be quite narrow, this order as a whole should reassure teachers across the state (and their students) that Section 16 does not prohibit teachers from teach, use or refer to critical race. Theory or any other theory, ideology or idea as long as teachers do not force their students to accept such theory, ideology or idea as valid,” he continued.

Mike Lauxone of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said the ruling was “a victory” and “validation” despite its narrow scope.

“If Judge Rudofsky had denied our motion entirely, it would say nothing about the overall viability of the case. However, the fact that he accepted even part of our motion is a clear testament to the viability of the demands going forward,” Laux said.

Attorney General Tim Griffin also claimed the decision as a victory.

“The very limited injunction simply prohibits doing what Arkansas never did in the first place,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to apply the law as it is written rather than as plaintiffs choose to misinterpret it.”