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FAMU students' lawsuit against the state taps the school's long tradition of student activism

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

A potential class action lawsuit alleging state discrimination against Florida A&M—an historically Black public university—is moving forward. For some, the case continues the school’s long-held tradition of student activism.

The six student plaintiffs argue the state has failed to meet its funding obligations to FAMU and has maintained a “segregated system of higher education."

“We do deserve to be treated equally as those students that are literally across the tracks from us," said Britney Denton.

Denton is one of the student plaintiffs in the case. In Tallahassee, FAMU’s campus and Florida State University’s campus are literally divided by railroad tracks. And from Denton’s viewpoint it seems clear one school gets more state support than the other.

“It’s just -- it’s not fair that we aren’t able to get the same opportunities, we aren’t allowed to get the same amount of money, we aren’t allowed the same education in the same city as another school that has every opportunity in the world,” she said.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle heard a motion from the state to dismiss the case, but he’s permitting it to proceed. He did, however, pepper the leader of the students’ legal team, civil rights attorney Josh Dubin, with questions. And he gave the plaintiffs 30 days to revise the case and provide more specific examples of discrimination.

Here’s Dubin on the courthouse steps after the hearing:

“I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d say they’ll probably file another motion to dismiss and we might be back again,” he said. “Whether there will be oral argument attached to that, I don’t know.”

The lawsuit raises a series of issues about funding and programs that it contends are discriminatory, including duplication of programs with nearby FSU and an alleged failure to have “unique” non-core programs at FAMU.

Arguments in the case involve such things as an engineering program that FAMU shares with Florida State and a FAMU law school that was closed in the 1960s and revived decades later at an Orlando campus. The closure of the original FAMU law school came as a Florida State law school opened. Dubin doesn’t believe the harm of that juxtaposition has been mitigated.

“I don’t believe it has,” he said. “I don’t believe you undo that sort of stripping of a core academic institution at an historically Black college and university.”

FAMU President Larry Robinson isn’t a party to the lawsuit. During an interview with WFSU after the lawsuit was filed last year, he acknowledged that he walks a fine line between his students and his bosses in state government. But also, he says, social activism is a longstanding tradition at the school.

“We have at FAMU some of the nation's most socially conscious and aware students on the planet,” Robinson said. “And when there are things that they see that don't necessarily go the way that they think they should, then they should step up and say something, right? And so, these young students and whomever else is involved see the reason to file the lawsuit.”

Britney Denton says her family and friends have been nothing but supportive.

“My family is very proud of the stand that I am able to take, my colleagues are very proud of me, my classmates -- they have actually been asking if there’s any way that they would be able to get involved, even so late into the lawsuit happening,” she said.

Denton, a first-year doctoral candidate in pharmacy, says that win or lose, she wants to encourage her fellow students and those who come to FAMU after her. 

“And I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported me and especially my mother, Dr. Ora Denton, who has been able to just guide me through exactly how to be the lady that I am to answer these questions that you asked me today.”  

Dubin and his team are asking Hinkle to certify the case as a class action to represent all of the students enrolled at FAMU during the 2021-2022 school year through the date the judge agrees to do so, if in fact he does. Here’s Dubin: 

“I wish I’d had as much courage, intellect and bravery as these students have when I was their age,” he said. “And I think it speaks volumes about their character, and it’s a privilege and an honor to represent them in what we think is a very important, historic case.”

The lawsuit requests the appointment of a mediator, who would recommend a remedy to the court that will allow FAMU to achieve parity with the state’s traditionally white institutions within the next five years.
Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Margie Menzel
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