Mar 22, 2022 - Politics

"Divisive concepts" bill debated

The Tennessee State Senate.
Photo: David Underwood/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Tennessee Senate approved a bill Monday that would prohibit state colleges from punishing students or staff who don't agree with certain "divisive concepts."

  • The Republican-backed bill identifies more than a dozen ideas sponsors say "exacerbate and inflame divisions" surrounding race, gender and other cultural issues.
  • Students or staff who feel they have been penalized for their stances would be allowed to sue.

Why it matters: Tennessee lawmakers have pursued a raft of bills seeking to regulate topics discussed in education, particularly when it comes to race and the concept of privilege.

Driving the news: Divisive concepts defined in the higher education legislation include the idea that "this state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist."

  • Another concept included in the bill is that "an individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously."

Zoom out: Discussions of race in the classroom have become a political lightning rod.

  • Republicans have railed against school instruction about white privilege and systemic racism.
  • Advocates say those conversations are pivotal for students seeking to understand history and contemporary society.

What they're saying: Republican supporters speaking during Senate discussion said the bill would promote free discussion.

  • Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville), the sponsor, said "this bill's not directed at what can or cannot be taught, but it's directed at any adverse action" against those who refuse to accept the concepts.

The other side: State Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) said she worried the bill would have a "chilling effect" by preventing professors from engaging on important topics.

What's next: The Senate bill differs from the version approved in the House. The chambers will need to agree on a version before it can go to Gov. Bill Lee.

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