Patrick Semansky/AP

Trump's Diversity Training Restrictions Draw Lawsuit, As IGs Investigate Compliance

Groups liken Trump's order to McCarthyism and "authoritarian thought-and-speech control."

A trio of groups has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict federal contractors and grant recipients from training their employees on issues related to diversity and inclusion, saying a recent executive order violates several clauses of the Constitution. 

That order followed a White House memorandum placing similar prohibitions on federal agencies and the subjects on which they can train their workers. At least one internal watchdog, the Defense Department’s inspector general, announced on Friday it would terminate its work ensuring its parent agency is meeting its diversity and inclusion goals and instead investigate compliance with President Trump’s order. 

The lawsuit filed Friday by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, National Urban League and National Fair Housing Alliance asks a federal judge in Washington to invalidate the executive order, arguing it contradicts American history, stymies efforts to overcome discrimination and circumvents normal executive order processes. The groups argued the order, which said the government had engaged in initiatives that were “rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country,” violated the free speech, equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution. 

The White House memo to agencies laid out specific phrases for which agencies should search to identify trainings that may conflict with Trump’s directives, including "critical race theory," "white privilege," "intersectionality," "systemic racism," "positionality," "racial humility" and "unconscious bias." Through the follow up order, the ban includes both internal trainings and those conducted by outside vendors. It also applies to contractors and grant recipients, who must ensure their workforces are not engaging in any of the diversity and inclusion practices Trump has labeled as “divisive.” Any contractor in violation of the order risks being suspended or debarred from future federal awards.

The order, the plaintiffs argued, is too broadly defined as it establishes a system in which “there is no objective way to determine which activities are permitted and which are prohibited.” They also called it “chillingly punitive” as it requires anyone doing business with the federal government “to comply with exacting speech limitations and submit to the government all plans for diversity and inclusion training to ensure the demand for censorship is satisfied.” 

The Labor Department has set up a hotline for individuals to report any training activity taking place in violation of the order and memo, which the plaintiffs in their complaint likened to McCarthyism. The Trump administration promised discipline for any employees who allow “divisive training” to continue. It also instructed agencies to tap a senior political appointee to approve any spending on diversity and inclusion expenses, while all training programs must be reviewed by the Office of Personnel Management to check for possible violations.

“Education about racial and gender diversity, equity, and inclusion is necessary for the healing of this nation and to develop effective policies to overcome discrimination and structural inequity, and ensure that everyone has access to the opportunities they deserve,” said Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

The plaintiffs noted they are themselves recipients of federal contracts and grants and laid out various initiatives and programs they now fear will lead to their debarment under Trump’s order. They called the order “authoritarian thought-and-speech control.” The groups have also launched a campaign with the hashtag #TruthBeTold, which they said has already led to reports of training and event cancellations in 35 states at federal agencies, universities and non-profit organizations. 

At the Defense Department, meanwhile, Dwrena Allen, a spokesperson for the Pentagon’s inspector general, said the IG launched its investigation at the request of Defense Secretary Mark Esper. 

“Our focus is to ensure the DoD is in compliance with the provisions of the EO,” Allen said. 

Also on Friday, however, Esper said he was concerned the department would “lose focus” on its efforts to boost diversity and inclusion. “Unconscious bias” is one of the terms now prohibited in federal trainings, but Esper still said whenever he travels to Defense installations, “there’s this sense that there is not overt racism in the military, but there is unwitting bias.”