Arkansas Advocate
Brian Chilson
Central High teacher Ruthie Walls, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

A federal judge on Wednesday scheduled a preliminary injunction hearing for April 30 in a case challenging the constitutionality of a portion of the LEARNS Act that bans “indoctrination” in public schools.

Little Rock Central High School parents, students and a teacher involved in an AP African American Studies pilot course that received scrutiny for potentially violating the “indoctrination” ban, filed the lawsuit in late March against Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva.

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In Wednesday’s order, U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky said he granted in part and denied in part the plaintiffs’ request for an “expedited briefing and consideration.” He denied part of the request because plaintiffs could have filed their complaint and preliminary injunction months ago, he wrote.

“Defendants should not be short-changed on the two weeks provided by the Local Rules to develop their responsive arguments just because Plaintiffs chose not to file for those many months,” Rudofsky wrote.

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Attorney General Tim Griffin argued in a motion filed on Tuesday that the plaintiffs’ request for expedited treatment should be denied because they put off filing the case and delayed seeking preliminary injunctive relief for more than a year.

The LEARNS Act was signed into law last March and went into effect immediately due to its emergency clause. The law, which was a priority for Sanders, makes several changes to the state’s education system, including increasing the state’s minimum teacher salary to $50,000 and creating a school voucher program.

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“Only three weeks ago did Plaintiffs finally file suit, but even then, they continued to sit idle,” Griffin said. “Indeed, far from immediately seeking emergency relief, they waited weeks to file a new complaint and then only made it around to filing their preliminary-injunction motion just before midnight on April 12. Plaintiffs’ actions undermine their second request that the Court ‘expedite briefing and consideration.’”

Griffin said “because plaintiffs’ motion presents legal issues identical to those that would be resolved on a motion to dismiss,” the court should conserve resources by setting the defendants’ deadline for both responses no earlier than May 6.

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In Wednesday’s order, Rudofsky partly agreed with Griffin, saying “avoiding the inefficiency discussed above is good cause to extend the deadline” for the defendants’ responses until seven days after the court decides the preliminary injunction request.

He gave Griffin until April 26 to respond to the preliminary injunction motion and plaintiffs until April 29 to respond. He set the preliminary injunction hearing for 3 p.m., April 30.

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Background

On March 25, civil rights attorneys Mike Laux and Austin Porter Jr. filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas on behalf of three Little Rock Central High students, their parents and AP African American Studies teacher Ruthie Walls.

The suit stems from an AP African American Studies course being piloted in six Arkansas schools, including Central High, that received scrutiny after Sanders signed an executive order banning “indoctrination” on her first day in office. Similar language was later incorporated into the LEARNS Act.

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The state education department abruptly removed the advanced placement course from its list of approved courses days before the start of the 2023-2024 school year last August. Although students were allowed to continue taking the course, it would not count toward graduation credit.

According to a statement issued by the Laux Law Group, Section 16 of the LEARNS Act, which bans “indoctrination,” is “a brazen, political attempt to silence speech and expression” that the governor and education secretary disagree with.

“The LEARNS Act violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” the statement reads. “It is unworkably vague and oppressive, and it discriminates on the basis of race. Section 16 is just another front in the culture war being waged by right-wing ideologues.”

Plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction and a request for expedited briefing and consideration on April 12.

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An amended complaint also filed on April 12 removed an unnamed parent and student as plaintiffs and added the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP and high school debate teacher, Colton Gilbert.

Members of the Arkansas State Board of Education were added as defendants, joining Sanders and Oliva.

The amended complaint argues the portion of the law banning “indoctrination” should be void for vagueness, contains content and viewpoint-based discrimination and discriminates on the basis of race.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.