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Legislation protects teachers from forced speech

A bill that would allow Tennessee teachers and public school employees to set their own policy on whether to use a person’s preferred pronouns advanced to the Education Administration Committee this week. 

House Bill 1269, sponsored by Assistant Majority Leader Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, establishes that teachers and other employees of a local education agency (LEA) are not required to use a student’s preferred pronoun if it is not consistent with the student’s biological sex. Last Tuesday Cochran told members of the House K-12 Subcommittee that forced speech is a violation of free speech, and the legislation is intended to protect school employees. 

“Public school teachers and employees of (local schools) do not shed their constitutional rights when they walk in the door,” Cochran said.  “Not only does the First Amendment protect your right to speak, it protects your right not to speak. It protects you from saying something you do not believe.”

House Bill 1269 bill does not actively authorize a teacher to establish a policy, but rather prevents adverse action if they do. 

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A legal precedent was established in 2021 when the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion in Meriwether vs Hartop affirming that educators cannot be forced to use inaccurate preferred pronouns that would violate their First Amendment right to free speech. 

House Bill 1269 further shields teachers and school employees from civil liability and adverse employment action. It makes clear that a public school or LEA is not civilly liable if a teacher or employee of the public school or LEA refers to a student using a pronoun that is consistent with the biological sex of the student to whom the teacher or employee is referring, even if the pronoun is not the student’s preferred pronoun.

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