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Hillsborough teacher is among three to sue over Florida's personal pronoun law

The State Board of Education approved changes to a rule to help carry out a controversial new law that expanded a prohibition on instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
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Three teachers filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new Florida law that blocks them from using preferred pronouns while on the job.

A high school teacher from Hillsborough County was among those who filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new Florida law that blocks them from using preferred pronouns while on the job.

Three teachers on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit alleging a new state law restricting titles and pronouns at schools unconstitutionally discriminates against transgender and nonbinary educators.

The lawsuit is the latest challenge to a series of measures, championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, that have targeted transgender children and adults and other LGBTQ people.

The case focuses on a part of a 2023 law that says a school employee “may not provide to a student his or her preferred personal title or pronouns if such preferred personal title or pronouns do not correspond to his or her sex.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are transgender teachers in Hillsborough and Lee counties and a nonbinary teacher who was fired by Florida Virtual School in October after refusing to drop the title “Mx.” and the pronouns “they/them.”

The law “discriminates against transgender and nonbinary public-school employees and contractors on the basis of sex, by prohibiting them from using the titles and pronouns that express who they are,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote.

The pronoun and title prohibitions also violate the employees’ First Amendment rights and civil rights laws, the lawsuit said.

The new law “requires plaintiffs to shed their titles and pronouns at the schoolhouse gate because they are not the titles and pronouns that Florida prefers for the sex it deems them to be,” attorneys for the plaintiffs argued.

The lawsuit, filed in the federal Northern District of Florida, asks Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to block the law from being enforced and award compensation to the teachers.

The plaintiffs are Lennard High School teacher Katie Wood; a Lee County teacher identified as “Jane Doe;” and AV Schwandes, a nonbinary Orange County teacher who was fired by Florida Virtual School in October.

Defendants include state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, the Department of Education, the State Board of Education and its seven members, other state education officials and the school boards in Lee and Hillsborough counties.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the teachers by lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Legal Counsel, Inc., and San Francisco-based Altshuler Berzon LLP.

It alleges the law violates the First Amendment because it prohibits transgender and nonbinary school employees from using the titles and pronouns “that express who they are,” treating them differently from colleagues.

“Florida has stigmatized plaintiffs, threatened their psychological well-being, upended the respect that is owed to them as educators and that is necessary for a safe workplace and functioning classroom, and put their professions and families’ well-being on the line. Florida’s statute must give way to the Constitution and laws of the United States and must not be enforced,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote in the 61–page complaint.

The reach of the law, the plaintiffs contend, is not limited to school campuses and “applies wherever, whenever, and however an employee interacts with students.”

"Those who support and enforce this law are trying to take my voice away and bury my existence. But they will not. I can help hold Florida lawmakers accountable in a court of law. I will not be swept under the rug, I will not be silenced, and I will not budge for my Constitutional rights."
Katie Wood

Before signing the bill in May, DeSantis criticized how pronouns were being used in schools.

“We never did this through all of human history until like, what, two weeks ago? Now this is something, they’re having third-graders declare pronouns? We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida. It’s not happening here,” DeSantis said.

But the lawsuit argued that DeSantis and his allies enacted the measures “at least in part because of, not merely in spite of, the adverse effects they would have — both individually and in the aggregate — on LGBTQ+ people, especially transgender and nonbinary people, in various aspects of life.”

DeSantis’ office and the Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

The law targeted in the case also included an expansion of a controversial 2022 measure, which critics dubbed “don’t say gay,” that restricted instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The 2023 law also bolstered another contentious 2022 law that ramped up scrutiny of instructional materials and school-library books.

The new case only challenges the part of the law restricting the use of titles and pronouns.

Under that part of the law, school superintendents could lose their salaries for a year if they receive complaints about potential violations and do not report it to the Department of Education.

Misgendering a person by using the incorrect pronouns or titles “can cause that person psychological distress and feelings of stigma. So can prohibiting a person from going by titles and pronouns that express the person’s gender identity,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote.

Wood, who has worked as a teacher in Hillsborough County since 2021, transitioned as a woman around 2020, had her name legally changed and lives as a woman, the lawsuit said. The state issued a teaching certificate in her legal name, Katie Wood. According to the lawsuit, county officials initially “were supportive of her transgender status and her female gender identity and expression.”

Since the law went into effect, the principal at Wood’s school and the county school board told her she could no longer be called “Ms.” because “her sex is deemed male.” The officials told Wood she could use the titles “Mr.,” “Teacher,” or “Coach.”

“Going by titles like Mr. and pronouns like he and him would harm Ms. Wood, including emotionally, risk physical harm from others, and disrupt her classroom and ability to do her job. Avoiding titles and pronouns altogether would be impractical, disruptive, and stigmatizing,” the lawsuit said.

Wood adopted the title “Teacher,” but the lawsuit alleged the title has negatively affected her ability to teach and is a distraction to students.

The three teachers have also filed discrimination complaints with federal labor officials.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.
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