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TN bill that allows students to report professors who teach 'divisive concepts' passes House and Senate

"Divisive concept" rules are a set of laws passed last year that include many concepts usually taught in courses like sociology, psychology and political sciences.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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 that made its way through the Tennessee legislature aims 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 previously said that the new bill 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."

Originally, the bill required 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. That requirement was removed in an amendment to the bill.

The bill restricts universities from using state funds for meetings or activities of an organization that "endorses or promotes a divisive concept." It also requires employees who support diversity initiatives to "increase intellectual diversity" and support students through mentoring, career readiness and workforce development initiatives.

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

It also allows students and employees who believe that the school violated last year's law a chance to file a report with the school. The school would then need to annually report violations to the comptroller of the treasury, redacting them 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.

Rep. Justin Jones (D - Nashville) spoke about the bill when he returned to the House of Representatives after he was expelled and reinstated. He asked a series of questions, such as whether "college students are mature enough to talk about race and systemic racism, some of the concepts you want to prohibit being discussed at the college level?"

"I believe in God. All else is settled by facts and data," Ragan said.

Jones again asked him to answer the question, but Ragan said he responded to the question.

"So, we're playing 'not-answer.' Okay," Jones said.

He also asked why the bill was introduced and said it seemed based on "white fragility and fears of the truth of history."

"This bill was brought to me by a dean of college education, in addition to another university contributed to this bill. That was my motivation, too," Ragan said.

He also said he did not want to name the person who brought the bill to him.

"How will we be honest about our history if you're prohibiting any concepts about America's racist history?" Jones said. "This sounds like fascism. This sounds like authoritarianism. This does not sound like democracy or freedom ... This member has consistently invoked God to justify this unjust, immoral and extreme, racist law."

Speaker Cameron Sexton (R - Crossville) stopped Jones from speaking. Rep. Justin Pearson (D - Memphis) also spoke after being reinstated to the House.

"This is a deeply concerning bill because it is continuing a pattern of practice that is harmful to all people," he said. "When you try to control what a person thinks, then you are assuming the role of God rather than allowing freedom of thought."

He said that the list of "divisive concepts" bars discussions on biases, white privilege and racism's role in slavery.

The bill passed by a vote of 68-26 in the House.

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) previously 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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