Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Court Finds That Arizona's Decision to Bar Mexican-American Studies Was Motivated by Intentional Discrimination
Yesterday, a federal district court held that Arizona's decision to ban Mexican-American studies and the local district's enforcement of that ban were motivated by intentional discrimination. The court also held that restricting students access to that information violated the First Amendment.
As a matter of substance, the case marks a major victory for multicultural studies and places clear limits on partisan and other illegitimate attacks on them. As a matter of Fourteenth Amendment and First Amendment doctrine and analysis, the case is also noteworthy for professors. The opinion is a textbook example of basic constitutional analysis. Anyone looking to bone up on how to apply intentional discrimination and free speech doctrine should give it a read. Assuming the case stands on appeal, it will make a nice addition to education law casebooks or, in a modified form, a handout for class exercise.
First, the court recites the basic Arlington Heights standard for proving intentional discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case is now in its 40th anniversary and somehow stood the test of time (notwithstanding how hard to makes it for plaintiffs to win discrimination cases). Under Arlington Heights, plaintiffs must show the defendant acted with a "discriminatory purpose." They can show this through circumstantial evidence, including: 1) the discriminatory impact of the decision; "2) the historical background of the decision; 3) the sequence of events leading up to the challenged action; 4) the defendant's departures from normal procedures or substantive conclusions; and 5) the relevant legislative or administrative history."
As on a law exam, the task here is to avoid looking just for smoking guns and instead walk through each factor in a "sensitive inquiry." The details can add up. That is exactly what the district court did, by the end of its opinion, it had amassed so much circumstantial evidence that the case would seem to stand even if the court botched a few facts. While the court pointed to direct evidence of racial animus in the case, it spent most of its time examining the more subtle details. It pointed out that the history of the program was to counteract the harmful effects of past segregation. It identified two procedural irregularities in how the Arizona statute was passed: a) the statute was targeted at a particular district rather than a statewide issue and b) other measures could have been used to deal with the purported problem with the program.
Next, the court examined the legislative history, inferring illegitimate motivation by many of the statute's proponents. Of particular interest was the court's willingness to look at "code words"--words that on their face might sound neutral, but in context could be used to convey racial animus. For instance, "Raza," "un-American," "radical," "communist," and "Aztlan" were all derogatory terms aimed at Mexican Americans during the debate over the program. These terms were not just attempts to win the debate, but were demeaning and racially charged. A less careful court could have dismissed their important. The court revealed, for instance, that the state superintendent had used "Raza" as a substitute for Mexican American, stating the program was "Raza studies for the Raza kids."
With these motivations laid bare, the First Amendment analysis was easy. The court recognized that the state and its schools have the authority to control the curriculum, but there is a major exception: when the control is exercised for partisan or illicit reasons rather than pedagogical concerns. As the Supreme Court held in Island Trees School District v. Pico, partisan motivations render an otherwise permissible curricular decision unconstitutional. Applying that standard, the trial court found that:
The stated policy of A.R.S. § 15-112 is to reduce racism in schools, see A.R.S. § 15-111, which is a legitimate pedagogical objective. The theory of plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim is that reducing racism is only a pretextual objective, and that the statute was in fact enacted and enforced for narrowly political, partisan, and racist reasons.
The Court concludes that plaintiffs have proven their First Amendment claim because both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus.
Get the full opinion here: Download 468 Order and Opinion