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Arizona’s ban on Mexican American studies was racist, U.S. court rules

Carlos Galindo protesting outside the Arizona Education Department in Phoenix in 2011. (Matt York/AP)

A federal judge in Arizona has ruled that the state violated the constitutional rights of Mexican American students by eliminating a successful Mexican American studies program, saying officials “were motivated by racial animus” and were pushing “discriminatory ends in order to make political gains.”

The decision came down Tuesday, the same day that President Trump hinted at a rally in Phoenix that he would pardon Joe Arpaio. The former sheriff in Maricopa County, Ariz., was convicted of criminal contempt in July for ignoring a court order to stop detaining people because he merely suspected them of being undocumented immigrants. He has yet to be sentenced.

Some students and their parents sued the superintendent of public instruction in Arizona and members of the State Board of Education alleging that their rights under the First and 14th amendments had been violated when the Tucson Unified School District moved to eliminate its Mexican American studies program.

Judge A. Wallace Tashima, a U.S. circuit court judge sitting in a state district court, wrote that students’ First Amendment rights were violated because they were denied the “right to receive information and ideas” and that their 14th Amendment rights were violated because the decision discriminated against Latinos. “The Court concludes that plaintiffs have proven their First Amendment claim because both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus,” he wrote, ordering both sides to submit remedy briefs within 20 days.

The studies program started after Latino and black students filed a class-action school desegregation lawsuit in federal district court against the school district in 1974. Creating the program was one of the ways seen as helping to remedy “existing effects of past discriminatory acts or policies,” according to a consent decree.

The voluntary K-12 program’s classes in art, government, history and literature focused on historic and contemporary Mexican American contributions. It was seen as a way to help students see “themselves or their family or their community” in their studies. Students who participated in the program showed higher test scores and graduation and attendance rates and were better disciplined than similar peers who did not participate, the judge said.

But the program came under scrutiny in 2006 when Dolores Huerta, a Latina labor leader and civic rights activist, gave a speech at Tucson High School and said that “Republicans hate Latinos.” Tom Horne, then Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, labeled Huerta’s remarks as “hate speech.” He ordered a deputy to make a rebuttal speech at the school, during which protesting students taped their mouths, turned their backs, raised their fists and walked out of the auditorium. In his ruling, Tashima wrote:

Horne, who was in attendance, found the protest “rude.” He concluded that it was organized, and the “rudeness” taught, by teachers in the MAS program.

That same day at Tucson High, Horne saw a librarian wearing a T-shirt with the acronym “M.E.Ch.A.,” for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, a student club with chapters in high schools and colleges across the country. Horne read something about the founding of the group in 1969 and concluded that it was anti-American.

Horne then launched a campaign to eliminate the Mexican American studies program. He was at first unsuccessful, but he kept pushing the state legislature to prohibit courses “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” Legislation passed in 2010 did just that, along with prohibiting courses that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” or that “promote the overthrow of the United States government.”

The Tucson schools kept the program, while MAS opponents continued to push for a ban in the school district. Former state senator John Huppenthal declared that the program violated various Arizona statutes.  The court decision notes that Huppenthal posed a blog comment in October 2011 that said: “The Mexican-American Studies classes use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power. In Hitler’s case it was the Sudetenland. In the Mexican-American Studies case, it’s Aztlán.”

In 2012, fearful of losing 10 percent of the funding it received from the state, the Tucson school board decided to end the program.

Huppenthal succeeded Horne as superintendent of public instruction in Arizona and kept pushing Tucson to drop the program. Horne ran for attorney general of Arizona and won, serving from 2011 to 2015. The judge noted that both men “repeatedly pointed to their efforts against the MAS program” in their political campaigns:

The issue was a political boon for the candidates because “concerns” about the MAS program had “spread across the state like wildfire.”

The decision is striking. Read it: