Top officials at the University of South Florida were impressed with Sam Rechek, a 21-year-old senior who spoke to the school’s board of trustees on Tuesday about his passion for free expression.
He had started a civil discourse club and said he wanted to be known as “the free speech guy on campus.” He became an advisor on due process rights for students accused of conduct violations.
University president Rhea Law told Rechek she was proud of him and that he’d make a great lawyer. Board chairperson Will Weatherford, paraphrasing a Bible verse, praised his commitment to free expression in divided times.
By Tuesday evening, Rechek was taking his university to court in the latest legal challenge to Florida’s’ new “Stop WOKE Act.”
The lawsuit names USF’s board of trustees, the state Board of Governors overseeing the university system and other state officials, urging them to stop the law’s implementation. Rechek is joined by USF history professor Adriana Novoa, and together they are represented by the civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
Also known as HB7, the law includes language that prohibits workplace training or school instruction that makes anyone feel “guilt, anguish or other psychological distress” related to race, color, national origin or sex because of actions “committed in the past.”
Rechek said it prevents members of his club and students in his classes from having frank conversations about race. He said he did not think the university was aware of his intent to file a lawsuit at the time of his presentation, but believed that anyone with the university’s interests at heart should understand his opposition.
“The University of South Florida’s central tenets are truth and wisdom,” he said. “To me there’s no greater way to pursue those two high values than through civil discourse and robust debate about difficult topics.”
Other lawsuits have been filed against the law and a federal judge has blocked a provision of the act that relates to workplace training about race. But Rechek, Novoa and the foundation contend the First and Fourteenth Amendments should prevent it from being implemented on college campuses.
Novoa, a USF faculty member since 2001, teaches courses titled “Science in Cultural Context,” “History of Sports from National to Global Contexts” and “Modern Latin America,” among others.
After reviewing the law and her course materials, she concluded she needed to remove readings on Jackie Robinson and segregation in baseball from her course on sports history “because the materials ‘advance’ arguments about white privilege.”
The same was true for another course that deals with tensions resulting from colonialism that led to revolutions in Latin America and the treatment and extermination of indigenous peoples in Argentina. Those topics “advance arguments about ‘collective guilt,’” the lawsuit says.
Novoa, who grew up in Argentina, said in a news release that the new law prevents her from teaching to the best of her ability.
“The government should not tell the people what they can talk and think about,” she said in the release. “I know indoctrination. I’ve seen indoctrination. And indoctrination isn’t coming from my classroom — it’s coming from a law intended to limit the freedom to think and express these thoughts, which is the foundation of good education.”
USF spokesperson Althea Johnson said the university does not comment on pending litigation.
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.