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Bill in TN legislature strengthens 'divisive concept' laws in schools passes House and Senate

WBIR-TV Knoxville 3/14/2023 WBIR Staff
© Provided by WBIR-TV Knoxville

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the bill was deferred to 2024. It was updated to reflect that it passed the House and Senate.

A bill making its way through the Tennessee legislature is meant to strengthen rules passed last year that can change how schools approach teaching many kinds of lessons in social justice, racial inequity, political science, social work, psychology and many other fields.

The bill passed the House of Representatives on April 13, after passing Senate on April 5.

In 2022, lawmakers passed rules that allow state leaders to withhold funding for schools that teach about social, cultural and legal issues related to race and racism. Most of those concepts focus on how the impact of racism affects people today. 

The law also specified that schools can teach about ethnic groups' histories as described in textbooks and instructional materials. Educators can also only teach about controversial aspects of history, such as racial oppression or slavery, as long those discussions are impartial.

The bill, HB 1376, was introduced by Representative John Ragan (R - Oak Ridge). He said that it was meant to strengthen the law passed in 2022 by "promoting freedom of expression," and keep "colleges about advancing knowledge, not about advancing political or social agendas."

It would require institutions to publish a syllabus for each course offered in the semester on its website, meant to assess whether a "divisive concept" may be included in the curriculum.

The syllabus would need to include the name of the course, the instructor's name, whether it is required for relevant majors, a brief description of each assignment and class activity, the title of each book assigned throughout the course and the final grades for the three most-recent semesters that it has been offered.

Universities would not be able to use state funds for meetings or activities of an organization that "endorses or promotes a divisive concept." Employees who work to support diversity initiatives would also specifically need to spend at least half of their time providing academic support for students who are eligible to receive a Pell Grant.

Employees would be exempt from the requirement if the new duties conflict with other laws, such as Title IX officers.

It would also give students and employees who believe that the school violated last year's law a chance to file a report with the school. It would then need to keep the report and make it available for public inspection online, redacting as needed to stay in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The bill would also specifically require universities to allow any guest speaker on campus regardless of "non-violent political ideology" or "non-violent political party affiliation."

The concepts that were banned from lessons in 2022's law are listed below.

  • That one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex
  • That a person, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive — whether consciously or subconsciously
  • That a person should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of their race or sex
  • That a person's moral character is determined by their race or sex
  • That a person, by virtue of their race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex
  • That a person should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress because of their race or sex
  • That a meritocracy is inherently racist, sexist or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex
  • That Tennessee or the U.S. is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist
  • Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government
  • Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people
  • Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges or beliefs to a race or sex, or to a person because of their race or sex
  • That the rule of law does not exist but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups
  • That "all Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"
  • That governments should deny to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the law

It also bans lessons that include "race or sex scapegoating" or "race or sex stereotyping," as those terms are defined in law. In October 2022, a group of UT faculty called the law "chilling," and questioned the law's intent.

During a meeting on March 13, Ragan said he received complaints from universities in the state about an "overemphasis" of the original law at the expense of "intellectual diversity," which led to him proposing the new bill.

Representative Harold Love, Jr. (D - Nashville) asked if a conference focusing on Black history could still be held and promoted by a university should the bill pass. Ragan said it would be allowed as long as they "are not required to promote or endorse."

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