Teachers can challenge Tennessee law limiting instruction on race, gender, and bias, judge rules

An adult stands at the right of the image facing a group of university students sitting at desks with large windows in the background.
Some Tennessee teachers say a 2021 state law has had a chilling effect on what and how they teach. The so-called prohibited concepts law specifically bans instruction about 14 concepts that Republican lawmakers deemed divisive and cynical. (Getty Images)

Sign up for Chalkbeat Tennessee’s free daily newsletter to keep up with statewide education policy and Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

Tennessee teachers can move forward with their lawsuit challenging a 3-year-old state law restricting what they can teach about race, gender, and bias.

U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case.

The Nashville judge also sided with educators over questions of whether they have legal grounds to sue the state, plus whether the federal court is the appropriate jurisdiction to take up complaints about the 2021 state law.

And in a 50-page memorandum to explain her single-page order, Trauger was frequently critical of the statute, which restricts teachers from discussing 14 concepts that the Republican-controlled legislature deemed cynical or divisive. She also cited shortcomings of related rules, developed by the state education department, to outline the processes for filing and investigating complaints, appealing decisions, and levying punishment that could strip teachers of their licenses and school districts of state funding.

“The Act simply invites a vast array of potentially dissatisfied individuals to lodge complaints based on their understanding of those concepts and then calls on the Commissioner [of Education], as a sort of state philosopher, to think deeply about what equality, impartiality, and other abstract concepts really mean and enforce the Act accordingly,” Trauger wrote in her May 2 memorandum.

Meanwhile, educators are at the mercy of the personal biases of authorities, which is “exactly what the doctrine of unconstitutional vagueness is intended to guard against,” she said.

The so-called prohibited concepts law was among the first of its kind in the nation that passed amid a conservative backlash to the racial-justice movement and protests prompted by the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Among its prohibitions are classroom discussions about whether “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

The law’s defenders note that it permits an “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history,” or as Rep. John Ragan, the House sponsor, described it: “facts-based” instruction.

But teachers say they don’t know how to be impartial when teaching about the theories of racial superiority that led to slavery and Jim Crow laws. The resulting confusion has influenced the small but pivotal decisions they make every day about how to prepare for a lesson, what materials to use, and how to answer a student’s question, ultimately stifling classroom discussion, many critics of the law assert.

Last July, lawyers for five public school educators and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher organization, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Nashville.

The suit says the language of the law is unconstitutionally vague and that the state’s enforcement plan is subjective. The complaint also says the statute interferes with instruction on difficult but important topics included in state-approved academic standards, which dictate other decisions around curriculum and testing.

Trauger, who taught school for three years before entering law school, suggested that the ambiguity could lead to a lack of due process for educators under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

“That does not mean that a law has to be wise or perfect or crystal clear, but it must mean something concrete and specific that a well-informed person can understand by reading its text,” she wrote in her memorandum.

Kathryn Vaughn, a Tipton County teacher who is among the plaintiffs, called the judge’s decision an important early step in the legal challenge.

“I’m thrilled that the judge listened to our concerns as educators and seemed to understand that this law puts teachers in an impossible position,” she told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office, which filed a motion for dismissal last September, declined to comment on the new development.

The judge set a June 17 scheduling meeting with attorneys in the case to discuss how to manage the litigation going forward.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the state attorney general’s office declined to comment.

The Latest

‘Did you say segregation ended?’ My student’s question speaks to the reality inside classrooms.

Since 1965, Fayette County schools have been operating under a desegregation order. Some worry that without court oversight, the system will resegregate.

In total, the winning candidates raised $63,500 and spent $36,600 in the election.

Students at a Washington Heights elementary school were frustrated with Eric Adams’ school food cuts. But their advocacy had a bigger impact than bringing back their favorite chicken dish.

Proposed high school diplomas for the class of 2029 will place a greater emphasis on work experience, which some educators say will push students to neglect academic opportunities.

The goal is for students and teachers to develop a richer understanding of Memphis’ pivotal role in American history, at a time when discussions of race are constrained by state law.