Tennessee law limiting instruction on race, gender, and bias can be challenged by teachers, judge rules

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Educators in Tennessee are cleared to proceed with their legal challenge against a state law from three years ago that limits discussions on race, gender, and bias.

Judge Aleta Trauger from the U.S. District Court rejected the state’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit.

The presiding Nashville judge also supported teachers concerning the validity of their lawsuit against the state and if the federal court is the appropriate venue for addressing concerns about the 2021 law.

In her 50-page explanation accompanying the single-page order, Trauger criticized the law that prohibits teachers from addressing 14 specified concepts perceived by the Republican-led legislature as divisive or cynical. She also pointed out flaws in the related regulations established by the state’s education department governing the procedure for lodging complaints, appealing decisions, and imposing penalties that could result in teachers losing their licenses and schools losing state funding.

“The Act essentially encourages numerous dissatisfied individuals to raise complaints based on their interpretations of these concepts, and then charges the Commissioner [of Education] with interpreting and enforcing the Act as if acting as a state philosopher on concepts like equality and impartiality,” noted Trauger in her memorandum from May 2.

She highlighted that educators are left vulnerable to the personal biases of officials, which violates the doctrine against unconstitutional vagueness.

The law prohibiting certain concepts was one of the earliest of its kind in the country and emerged amidst a conservative reaction to the racial justice movement and demonstrations following George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The prohibitions include forbidding discussions in classrooms about whether an individual is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive based on their race or sex, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Advocates of the law claim it allows for “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” or, as described by Rep. John Ragan, the House sponsor, “facts-based” teaching.

However, teachers express uncertainty regarding how to maintain impartiality when covering the theories of racial superiority that fueled slavery and Jim Crow laws. Critics of the law argue that this uncertainty influences their daily decisions on lesson planning, material selection, and responding to student queries, limiting classroom discourse.

Last year, attorneys representing five public school teachers and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ organization, initiated a lawsuit in federal court in Nashville.

The lawsuit asserts that the law’s language is unconstitutionally vague and the state’s enforcement strategy is subjective. It also claims that the statute hampers instruction on challenging but crucial topics outlined in state-endorsed academic standards, which determine curriculum and assessment decisions.

Trauger, a former school teacher before pursuing law, hinted that the ambiguity could infringe on educators’ due process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“This does not imply that a law must be flawless or flawless or crystal clear, but it must have a specific and concrete meaning that a well-informed person can comprehend by reading its text,” noted Trauger in her memorandum.

Kathryn Vaughn, a teacher from Tipton County and one of the plaintiffs, welcomed the judge’s decision as an initial step in the legal process.

“I’m delighted that the judge paid attention to our concerns as educators and appeared to grasp the challenges this law presents for teachers,” she said on Thursday.

A spokesperson from the state attorney general’s office, which sought dismissal of the case last September, did not provide a response upon request.

The judge scheduled a meeting on June 17 with the case’s attorneys to discuss the future handling of the lawsuit.

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