Arizona ban on ethnic studies goes before appeals court

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- Attorneys on Monday went before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to make a case for and against a ban on ethnic studies in Arizona.

The case against the 2010 law that forced the Tucson Unified School District to shutter its Mexican-American studies program was heard by Judges Richard Clifton, Jed S. Rakoff, and John T. Noonan, Jr.

Attorney Erwin Chemerinsky, who represents a group of former students who sued the state, said the ban was enacted with a discriminatory goal and should be thrown out. He said it was overly broad and unconstitutional.

A lower court upheld the Arizona law that prohibits courses if they promote resentment toward a race or a class of people, are designed primarily for people of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of people as individuals. But the federal court found courses "designed primarily for peoples of a particular ethnic group" to be unconstitutionally vague and upheld the other standards under which Tucson's program was eliminated.

The state has asked that the appeals court reinstate that provision, while plaintiffs want the entire law to be ruled unconstitutional.

"There's so much evidence here that indicates that there was a discriminatory animus, including removing a program that was proven to be tremendously successful," Chemerinsky said. He said students who participated in the program had a much higher chance of graduating from high school.

State attorney Leslie Kyman Cooper denied there were discriminatory intentions.

"It's the divisive, segregated teaching that this is designed to prohibit," Kyman Cooper said.

Clifton was skeptical of Chemerinsky's claim that the law violated students' right of free speech. He also disputed the state's argument that there was no discriminatory basis for the ban, arguing that if the program was academically successful, there seemed to be no other reason to ban it.

Although the Tucson district was forced to end its popular Mexican-American studies, it has recently resumed teaching some ethnic studies courses. District Superintendent H.T. Sanchez said the curriculum follows a 2013 federal racial desegregation order requiring culturally relevant courses. He said the courses are being taught at three high schools, but they will be expanded to seven next school year.

Former Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal, a staunch advocate of the law, used his last hours in office to issue a report accusing the Tucson district of being in violation. He cited an introductory course on hip-hop from the African-American perspective and lyrics from the rock band Rage Against the Machine as violations.

The district risks losing $14.2 million in annual funding over the courses, although the new chief of public schools, Diane Douglas, says she is working to find a solution.

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