According to the summary of House Bill 2, the trailer to the state budget bill into which Republicans shoehorned a wide array of damaging policies, one section of the bill “Establishes and describes a right to freedom from certain types of discrimination based on age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, or national origin in public workplaces and education.”
Strangely enough, those exact protections already exist under RSA 354. What the new law does instead, is to disingenuously equate teaching or discussing such topics as racism or misogyny with actual racism or misogyny. Because, you know, if you make a racist feel bad about being a racist, that, according to the defenders of this cynical, circular logic, is itself racism. It’s the old “You’re not being tolerant of my intolerance” argument.
This figurative wolf in sheep’s clothing pretends that teaching about the unsavory aspects of our nation’s history or having a frank discussion of what it means to be systematically discriminated against is inherently divisive. Make no mistake, this law is meant only to curtail exactly the type of open debate this nation sorely needs right now.
And it’s worse than the open prohibitions being placed on the teaching of critical race theory in other GOP-run states. Responding to the overwhelming opposition to its “divisive concepts” bill, HB 544, GOP leadership recast the legislation and stuffed it into the budget bill to protect Gov. Chris Sununu from having to either veto it or explain why he wouldn’t. In doing so, it made the measure far worse, as if punishing those who dared question the lawmakers’ intent.
The writers muddled it to the point where officials at every level of government in New Hampshire are concerned about how to keep from running afoul of it.
It caused more than half the governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion to resign abruptly, writing in a letter to Sununu that the new law makes it impossible for instructors to carry out the training on implicit bias that the governor had previously applauded.
Meanwhile, public school teachers and administrators are trying to figure out how to even devise lesson plans, as they await guidance from the state Department of Education. Kelsie Eckert, a social studies teacher at Moultonborough Academy and the current board president of the N.H. Council for the Social Studies, called it “promoting a whitewashed version of American history and American government.”
It’s a very pointed description, and with reason. Teachers stand to lose the most professionally from the new law. Beyond sparking a lawsuit against a school, teachers in violation could land in personal trouble and have their credentials threatened.
And consider the plight of Keene City Councilor Andrew Madison, who asked his fellow councilors for advice in the professional ethics involved in the position. Finding out there is no such training, he proposed the council implement such a course, to include racial bias, sexual harassment and gender sensitivity. But oh, no! Under the new “anti-discriminatory” language, teaching someone to be sensitive to matters of gender or race could be illegal. Never mind that the city’s appointed panel on racial justice and community safety recommended city staff get exactly that type of training.
And what would the penalties be? For teachers, it could mean raising a violation of professional conduct. For others, it may well open them and their board, committee, agency, etc., to a lawsuit. That’s because when it folded the language into RSA 354, the Republican-led Legislature also took pains to widen the array of penalties, writing “Any person aggrieved by an act made unlawful under this subdivision may pursue all of the remedies available under RSA 354-A, RSA 491, RSA 275-E, or RSA 98-E, or any other applicable common law or statutory cause of action.” Among those remedies are a $5,000 personal fine, injunctive relief (a violation of which would be punishable by up to three years in prison), and, of course, the possibility of a civil lawsuit seeking whatever damages the offended person chooses to name.
In addition to the myriad penalties and subjective nature of what might constitute a violation, there’s the uneasiness of even knowing from whom a complaint might spring. As one teacher asked: Do I worry that one of my (students) will turn me in? Moreover, do they worry a parent, based on secondhand information, might see an opportunity to make a political point? How about a police officer “offended” at the description of perceived bias or a town worker who decides their “right to freedom from certain types of discrimination” has been breached by a supervisor telling him/her to stop calling co-workers names?
We’d call this 5 pounds of unintended consequences in a 3-pound bag, except for the fact that these consequences are unmistakably intended.
It seems apparent from the level of confusion that a threatening vagueness was part of the goal. If no one is sure what might trigger a complaint or lawsuit, the inclination could well be to veer away from any controversial topic at all. In that case conservatives aiming to derail the Black Lives Matter movement and awareness of systemic racism will have won, and Granite State students, among many others, will have lost.