The New College of Florida board of trustees meets on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Sarasota. The board is among others being sued over the state's new higher education law. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

A group of plaintiffs connected to New College of Florida has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a recently passed law bringing major changes to the state’s higher education system.

The law, known as SB 266, is “the latest salvo in the culture wars being fought in Florida by Governor DeSantis and the Florida legislature,” says the suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.

The plaintiffs are three New College faculty members, three students and the New College of Florida Freedom group, a nonprofit made up of current and former students, faculty and community members. Listed as defendants are Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., the state Board of Governors and New College’s board of trustees.

The complaint outlines concerns about “a host of programs, majors, courses, and textbooks/assignments at New College which are either directly prohibited by SB 266 or which will be severely curtailed, censored and limited by that law.” Those include courses in gender studies, history, biology and anthropology, the lawsuit says.

DeSantis signed SB 266 in May after a legislative session that saw university groups level heavy criticism against the wide-ranging bill.

The law expands the hiring and firing authority of presidents and boards of trustees, prohibits spending on diversity, equity and inclusion beyond what is required by accreditors and calls for greater scrutiny of curricula as it relates to “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.”

While upper-level courses can be reviewed for such content by the Board of Governors, the law prohibits it in general education courses, which “may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics.”

The Board of Governors has yet to adopt a regulation to apply the law to universities, but the lawsuit alleges that the measure is nevertheless a threat to free speech and could curb some professors’ ability to teach in their disciplines.

It also states the student plaintiffs are “adults capable of determining for themselves whether the viewpoints advanced by their various instructors … have merit.”

DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern declined to comment, saying any response would come in a legal filing.

The suit is one of three legal challenges so far against the new law. A lawsuit filed in state court earlier this month targeted a provision that does not allow personnel decisions related to faculty, including tenure and termination, to be appealed through arbitration.

That case was filed by the statewide faculty union, United Faculty of Florida, along with its New College chapter and Hugo Viera-Vargas, a New College professor who was denied tenure.

The lawsuit alleges the arbitration ban “unlawfully abridges the fundamental right of public university faculty to collectively bargain with their employer” as guaranteed by the Florida Constitution.

Viera-Vargas had applied for tenure but was denied by the New College board following a memo from interim president Richard Corcoran advising the board to deny or defer.

The lawsuit alleges that Corcoran additionally violated the collective bargaining agreement by adding material to Viera-Vargas’ file hours before the decision without adequate notice. It states that Viera-Vargas then filed a grievance, but Corcoran denied it “and foreclosed any possibility of further review,” citing the new arbitration ban in state law.

The union also filed a lawsuit in federal court over the arbitration ban on Tuesday evening. The union filed along with three terminated University of South Florida instructors who have more than 10 years of employment each with the INTO USF Pathway program, which provides language and cultural education for international students.

The lawsuit alleges USF’s board of trustees did not offer an opportunity for the employees to appeal the terminationdecision, and that they have refused to arbitrate any grievances that were not already in arbitration prior to July 1.

The Board of Governors is working on implementing more than 30 pieces of legislation that relate to higher education, and State University System chancellor Ray Rodrigues has said their first priority will be SB 266.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.