TEA applauds preliminary victory in prohibited concepts lawsuit

U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger recently rejected the state's request to dismiss the lawsuit filed by TEA and five Tennessee teachers contesting a vague, three-year-old state law that affects teaching about race, gender, and bias. 


"This ruling is an important preliminary victory for Tennessee’s public school teachers and students, and it has been applauded nationwide. We look forward to what we hope will be an equally successful outcome on the merits," said TEA President Tanya T. Coats. 


In 2021 the legislature passed, and Gov. Bill Lee signed into law, Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-1019, and the commissioner of education subsequently promulgated regulations to implement that statute. Together, the statute and regulations are commonly referred to as the “Prohibited Concepts Ban.” The ban applies to Tennessee public schools and public charter schools. The ban prohibits the “inclu[sion] or promot[ion]” of fourteen “prohibited concepts” dealing with race, gender, and other subjects. Those concepts are so vaguely written that some of them could make it impossible for teachers to satisfy various subject area standards without potentially running afoul of some prohibited concept. The ban threatens subjective enforcement proceedings that can be initiated by any parent, student, or public school employee. Those enforcement proceedings can result in teacher discipline, including termination and license suspension or revocation, as well as a loss of school funds.


TEA, along with five individual teachers from across the state, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, asking the court to declare that the ban is unconstitutionally vague, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit was filed pursuant to the federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, under which a person can sue a state actor for violating the person’s rights under federal law or the U.S. Constitution. The state filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that TEA and the five individual plaintiffs lacked “standing” to pursue their claims and that the lawsuit failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. After briefing by both sides, the court took the state’s motion under advisement.


On May 2, 2024, the court denied the state’s motion to dismiss. In a thorough 50-page opinion, the court rejected each of the state’s contentions and concluded:


“There is nothing inherently wrong with applying curriculum standards surrounding controversial topics. The state of Tennessee has, has always had, and will continue to have, tools that permit it to do so. It uses those tools already on countless topics, from how students will learn math, to what language skills they should develop, to what qualifies as established science worthy of being taught in schools. What the state of Tennessee did here, however, was to bypass those ordinary tools altogether in favor of a parallel system, applicable only to a handpicked set of political viewpoints, that sacrifices collaboration and workability in favor of ideological combat. All that the plaintiffs have asked is that, if the state of Tennessee chooses that route, it should at least do so clearly enough that educators can have some bare minimum of notice regarding what it takes to actually steer clear of violating the Act and some bare minimum of restraint on the Commissioner’s power to impose her views on the students and teachers of the state. The Constitution grants them the right to expect that, and § 1983 grants them the right to ask a court to enforce that expectation. There is, therefore, no basis for dismissal.”