House takes up bevy of bills related to free speech in schools

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 03-25-2024 3:38 PM

Since the mask debates of COVID-19, New Hampshire schools have become fervent battlegrounds for ideological debates around race, sexuality, and gender identity. And last Thursday’s House session was no exception. 

Over a series of floor votes, Republicans and Democrats sparred over bills that would affect how teachers are allowed to talk about systemic oppression, how schools must deal with library books, when parents and guardians must be informed about curricular choices, and how public universities should protect free speech on campus.

Here are some of the bills that passed and failed during a packed session. 

Free speech and college campuses

The House passed a bill solidifying free speech protections on state college campuses, including for protests and gatherings and student-led groups and clubs. 

Republicans said the bill, House Bill 1305, would prevent state colleges and universities from requiring permits of certain groups that attempt to hold events. One lawmaker, Republican Rep. Mike Belcher of Wakefield, argued that colleges such as the University of New Hampshire have disfavored conservative and Christian organizations in their decision-making. 

The bill would bar the institutions from limiting demonstrations to “free speech zones” on campus, and permit all types of communication that are lawful and do not substantially disrupt the functioning of the college or university.

Democrats said the bill was not needed, noting that UNH already allows for many demonstrations and has been recognized as having the third-best free speech protections in the country by the advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

And they took issue with a provision in the bill that requires universities to treat student clubs equally, including religious, political, or ideological clubs. The bill allows those clubs to set any requirements of their members around beliefs, standard of conduct, and ability to further the organization’s mission and purpose.

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Democrats said that could lead to clubs excluding certain members and discriminating against them, and they said preventing the universities from intervening could violate state and federal anti-discrimination statutes.

Repealing ‘banned concepts’ law

Lawmakers also quarreled over a Democratic attempt to toss out a 2021 law often known as the “divisive concepts” or “banned concepts” law, which added new regulations on how schools teach about race, gender, and other identifiable clashes.

House Bill 1162 would repeal that law and would go further, clarifying that no part of state law bars educators from teaching about “the historical or current experiences of any group that is protected from discrimination” in state statute.

Democrats argued the banned concepts law is vaguely worded and carries real consequences for teachers, including the loss of their licenses. And they said that combination has led many teachers to abandon nuanced instruction on race and systemic oppression and to feel fearful that they will accidentally violate the law.

But Republicans said the topics banned in the original bill follow common sense, pointing to one that states that a teacher cannot advocate for the idea that a person of one gender, race, sexual orientation, or other characteristic is inherently superior to another.

The repeal bail failed in the House, with the chamber voting that it be indefinitely postponed, 192-183, meaning it can’t be reintroduced this year.

The law is currently facing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court; parties are awaiting a summary judgment decision following January’s oral arguments. 

On Thursday, the House also voted down House Bill 1671, which would change the banned concepts law to require someone aggrieved by the law to take the matter to their local school board, which would then investigate the complaint. Currently, the law allows that person to bring a civil action against the school or file a complaint with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights – that approach would be repealed by HB 1671. The bill was killed by the House by voice vote. 

Book removal policies

Democrats did manage to pass a bill that would establish policies around how school boards deal with attempts to remove books.

House Bill 1311, titled the “Students’ Freedom to Read Bill,” would dictate to school boards a process to create a “collection development policy,” which would lay out in detail how books are selected for the library. Under that policy, school boards would not be allowed to prohibit materials based on the age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics of either the subject of the book or the author. 

School boards would be required to develop a policy governing the removal of books, which also would include the prohibition against removing on the basis of one of the protected characteristics. 

Democrats said the bill was created with input from the New Hampshire School Library Media Association, and pointed to research by the American Library Association that found that 47 percent of school books targeted for removal in 2023 featured characters who are LGBTQ+ or Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The bill would standardize policies that many school boards have already adopted and prevent unwarranted bans on material, Democrats argued.

Republican opponents said the bill would not make the selection or removal process clearer, but would instead require that librarians and school board members make decisions based on the identities of the authors or characters. That standard, they argued, could make it impossible to remove certain titles. 

The bill passed narrowly, 194-180, with 11 Republicans joining all 182 Democrats present to vote in favor.

Parental notification

House Republicans voted to advance a bill that would require schools to provide parents advanced notification of any teaching relating to sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or gender expression. The bill, House Bill 1312, would also block any school district policy that prevents school guidance counselors from answering parental questions about the children. 

Republicans argued the bill would usher in helpful transparency; Democrats said it could violate private conversations between students and counselors and potentially out their sexual orientation or gender identity if they told a counselor. 

The bill passed, 186-185.

EFA changes blocked

Republican lawmakers also voted down a pair of bills that would have pared back the education freedom accounts program, which allows families to use per-pupil state funds that would go to their local public schools toward private schools and homeschooling instead. 

One bill, House Bill 1512, would have required the program stay within a specific budgeted amount every year, and mandated that Department of Education officials come before the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee to ask for more funding if the program exceeded that amount. 

Another, House Bill 1594, would have required that families in the EFA program continue to meet the income threshold for every year they receive the benefit. 

Currently, the program is available only to families that make up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level, but families need only meet that income level before their first year. After they qualify their first year, those same families can continue to participate even if their household income rises. The bill would require them to qualify every school year or lose the education freedom accounts.