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“When taking away a teacher’s right to free speech, one infringes on the student’s right to education”: Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill

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Opponents call it Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and this political branding seems to have worked since the press has gotten their claws into it and have laundered it into a national cry. One step to go – it now awaits Governor Ron DeSantis’s signature. 

The ambiguity around Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, makes it difficult to know the extent of the behaviour it forbids. While this may be the whole point of this given legislation, critics worldwide are attempting to pin down the key terms, such as “ age appropropriate”, “developmentally appropriate”, and even “classroom instructions”. Does this mean that Florida Republicans are leveraging uncertainty to terrorize teachers and school administrators? Or, on the other hand, there truly is no place for these discussions at the age of 8, 9, or even 10? If you think about it, on a household level, it really is no big deal if one child is allowed to date at the age of 12, while the child next door has to wait until they are 14. However, this is not household politics, it’s real life – the bill is likely to soon have the force of law. 

Fundamentally,  the bill that was passed by the Florida house, as well as the State Senate, imposes vague restrictions on classroom instructions. The most notable of this bill’s parts would be that classroom instruction by school personnel as well as third parties on sexual orientation, gender identity or topics related to sexual identity may not occur in kindergardten through grade 3, or in a manner that is not age appropriate for students in accordance with state standards. But, what is age appropriate and what are the state standards? 

While it is not entirely clear, the insidiousness of Florida’s law is that teachers who don’t understand how to comply with the new law are likely to over sensor their own speech, in order to avoid confusion and protect themselves from being accused of violating law. Moreover, the bill outlines that parents who find out about any discussion being held on the topic of sexuality, and the teacher did not tell the parents, have the right to sue the school district. When taking away a teacher’s right to free speech, one infringes on the student’s right to education. 

In reality, this bill would prevent teachers at schools from helping students that feel ostracised and have nowhere to turn. Moreover, one of the more powerful arguments is the fact that singling out sexual orientation and identity as a topic that is inappropriate to discuss at that age, sheds light on the fact that topics such as suicide, murder, drug abuse should be overlooked. This creates a social and cultural war issue, between what the government has wanted and what the legislative sponsor wanted. Is the question inherently about what makes lawmakers uncomfortable, and shows how emotional one can be on an issue that should not be an issue in the first place, being institutionalised as a bill. 

Just as a point of reference: the same government in Florida passed the ban on abortion after 15 weeks, also known as the “heartbeat” bill, “stop woke” act about critical race theory as well as rammed through a senate committee, preventing newspapers running legal notices in newspapers, purpose to financially cripple the media. State Senator Ileana Garcia expressed her thoughts on the “don’t say gay” bill earlier today, saying that “gay- is not a permanent thing, LGBTQ+ is not a permanent thing”, insinuating that we should be adapting to society’s needs and looking into the future to incentivise policymaking.

One may ask, how is this bill going to be enforced in practice? The answer is simple – private lawsuits. The government expects parents to sue schools for wrongdoing, emphasizing social inequality within school districts and furthermore placing mistrust in the educational system. Bear in mind, lawsuits are expensive to defend against, especially when the defendant could be guilty and therefore forced to pay for both lawyers. 

I have questioned scenarios in my head. Picture this: if a straight teacher were to have a picture of their spouse on their desk, would a gay teacher be able to do so? Would a teacher be able to respond to questions about Pete Buttigieg, the highest-ranking openly gay official in the US? Would they have to ignore the question? What if a novel in the curriculum had a gay character, or is interpreted like so?

President Biden has condemned the bill, his education secretary saying that schools that implement it might lose access to federal grants due to the Education Amendment of 1972, prohibiting discrimination in education on the basis of sexual orientation. This is as far as controversy has gotten since the Heartbeat Bill, and the implications of it are unforeseen. 

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