NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A state bill that would protect teachers and other employees of public schools if they choose not to use a student's preferred pronouns passed the Tennessee House of Representatives and Senate. It was signed by Gov. Bill Lee on May 18.
SB 0466 was introduced by Senator Paul Rose (R - Lauderdale, Shelby and Tipton Counties). Representative Mark Cochran (R - Englewood introduced the House version of the bill.
The bill specifically says "teachers and employees of public schools and LEAs do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression while at work" and says they are not civilly liable for using a pronoun other than what a student prefers.
Erica Bowton, an assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University, spoke against the bill while it was still in committee.
"This bill is ridiculous. This bill emboldens teachers, the ones we trust to guide our children, to air their biases openly, to deny our children their true selves, and to publically misgender them," she said. "It puts a target on their backs. They will be bullied, taunted, and shamed. Instead of an education, these children will be given anxiety, depression and adjustment disorders."
Two other people spoke against the bill during an Education Administration Committee, and one shared testimony from a person who they said was scared to appear at the committee.
According to the testimony, that person chose not to attend college because they felt unsafe in educational environments and were worried more students would feel unsafe because of the bill.
"We are not stupid. None of us believe this is about protecting children," Bowton said. "Stop lying. This is about intolerance for an entire group of humans."
Representative Sam McKenzie (D-Knoxville) asked Cochran if he believed the bill would violate Title IX rules, which protects some students from discrimination. He said around $1.3 billion could be lost if the state violated that federal law.
"I would argue to the exact opposite, that there is far more court precedent in favor of protecting a teacher's First Amendment rights, than in favor of the current administration's opinion of Title IX," said Cochran.
McKenzie emphasized that Title IX is a federal law that "transcends" administration or political leaning. He said that because of the state's compliance with Title IX, women's athletics and other aspects of schools are the way they are now.
Cochran said that court precedent showed that teachers could not be compelled to speak.
The bill's fiscal note says, "if found in violation of federal law, this legislation could jeopardize federal funding the FY23-24 and subsequent years." Tennessee receives around $1.3 billion from Title IX awards.