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Need for Nullification: TN divisive concepts legislation
Submitted by Jaime Watkins
Published May 11, 2023

My name is Jaime Watkins. I am a mother, community activist, and student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I am a Political Science major, concentrating in public policy and public administration. My purpose for writing today is simple: I am advocating for the Supreme Court of Tennessee to nullify the Divisive Concepts Act on the grounds that it violates the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S Constitution. Introduced as House Bill 2670, accompanied by Senate Bill 2290, and enacted as Tennessee Code Annotated Title 49 Chapter 7, the law is by context unconstitutional, discriminatory, and is deserving of the highest level of judicial review and unbiased judgment.

Over the years, conservative lawmakers have made coordinated efforts to restrict, regulate, or prohibit certain topics from entering academic discussions, and Tennessee’s divisive concepts legislation is no exception. The language of the bill is comparable to the language and rhetoric of other states that are furthering the same political agenda. As a college student, it is deeply concerning to see our academic institutions being used as pawns in a culture war; and as a mother I am afraid for the quality of education that my children will receive from a stifled learning environment. The act of learning involves being exposed to new ideas and challenging preconceived notions. To restrict topics from being discussed within a classroom setting, is to actively suppress a learning environment that is catered to a student’s experience and growth as an individual.

Tennessee's law is in violation of the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S Constitution that guard against viewpoint and subject based discrimination; as well as, protect the freedoms and rights to an equal and adequate education for citizens of the United States. It is the duty of the Supreme Court to uphold the Constitution and ensure that laws are not inherently unjust, unfair, or discriminatory. Where lawmakers fail, the courts are designed to prevail.

While lawmakers claim that the intentions of the bills were to prevent students from being forced to accept beliefs they do not support, the vagueness of the law’s language suggests that the concepts are banned from discussion in their entirety. Section three of the Act lists sixteen topics as divisive and states that they are prohibited due to their context being in contrast with American values. Educators are in fear of discussing these topics as the law does not discern what can or cannot be discussed. It does not provide a mediated standard of enforcement, or appropriately clarify what these concepts consist of.

The terms are all encompassing and imperative to a higher education curriculum. Banning these concepts in a higher education institution is not only degrading to the quality of education students receive at Tennessee’s universities, it also impairs the judgments of these concepts after graduation. When citizens are denied the right to information pertaining to the divisive concepts that are listed, their perception of issues surrounding these concepts are also impaired because they are not allowed the opportunity to reach their own personalized opinions of these matters based on a fully informed understanding of specific subjects and alternate perspectives.

The law has raised many concerns for those who are impacted by its implementation. Its vague language and prohibited concepts should not be overlooked or ignored. It is detrimental to the foundations and principles of our education system that we do not allow for the censorship of content that is deemed controversial, as it sets a dangerous precedent for further restrictions. The discriminatory and suppressive nature of the law is unconstitutional and deserves immediate consideration.

As an undergraduate student with two children in K-12 schools, it is deeply unsettling to see that a law of this nature was passed in our state. Since the law is highly political, controversial, and discriminatory it is deserving of the highest level of judicial scrutiny. I implore the Supreme Court of Tennessee to preserve the integrity of our state’s academic institutions by considering the immediate nullification of the Divisive Concepts Act.


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