Critics of new Georgia law on ‘divisive ideas’ say it could cause confusion

As Georgia public schools resume classes, they must follow new laws this year. One of them, House Bill 1084, bans educators from teaching so-called “divisive concepts.” The law’s critics say the language is vague, which is likely to cause confusion among educators.

HB 1084 prohibits nine concepts. Some are straightforward. For example, teachers cannot say that one race is superior to another. Others are more controversial: Educators cannot teach that the US is fundamentally racist. Brock Boone, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, says the language is unclear.

“Whenever laws are vague and confusing and teachers and educators are afraid of hurting something, it tends to silence speech,” he says.

Supporters of the law say it doesn’t prevent teachers from accurately teaching historical events like the Holocaust or slavery. It also states that the law should not interfere with the full implementation of the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate syllabuses. However, Boone says there could be a “chill effect” when teachers, afraid of breaking the law, don’t elaborate on the root causes of an event or conflict.

“That’s where this law comes in when a student asks a possible follow-up question like, ‘Why did this happen?'” he says. “Or ‘What does this mean for our country? Why did we do something so terrible?’ This is where educators have the potential to violate this instructional censorship law.”

Lawmakers considered a version of the House and Senate bill during the 2022 legislative session. Most Democrats opposed the measure, saying it wasn’t necessary. Senator Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, questioned Republican Senator Bo Hatchett, R-Clarkesville, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

“I would love your response to tell us where these practices are occurring now in our school system that requires this massive law being circulated state after state across the country by members of your party,” she said. “Where is the example in Georgia? What are we trying to stop? Do we have a problem that this solves? Do we have evidence that this is happening in our schools?”

Hatchett admitted he had not heard any complaints about teachers covering the prohibited subjects.

“From your point of view, 99.99% of Georgia teachers would not teach these divisive concepts,” Hatchett replied. “That was one of the biggest questions I’ve ever gotten, ‘Where’s the evidence? Where do you see this?’ But I’ll tell you, one of the things that has shocked and alarmed me during this process, based on internet emails and social media comments, is that there are people who are criticizing this bill and saying that these divisive concepts should be taught.

Hatchett said the bill would prevent a problem from developing rather than address an existing problem.

But the SPLC’s Boone says because the language of the law is difficult to understand, it could end up confusing parents and teachers.

“Where do you draw the line between discussion and advocacy?” he says. “It’s very possible that a potential teacher who just teaches facts or what happened might be seen by some parents, or by some teachers, or by some students… [who say] ‘I think this teacher is committed to not just teaching.’”

Sixteen states have passed similar laws. Georgian law requires each school district to establish a complaints resolution procedure. This could lead to more work for the school administration. They must investigate complaints within five school days, determine if a violation has occurred and notify parents of any action within ten days.