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Bill would restrict how Nebraska schools, government treat race and sex

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Read about some of the bills introduced Tuesday, Jan. 18, in the Nebraska Legislature.

The Nebraska Legislature will weigh a bill this session that would limit how public schools and higher education institutions and other government entities can train staff and students on ideas related to sex and race — an effort that critics argue would amount to censorship.

Legislative Bill 1077, introduced by Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair and nine cosponsors, would allow the state to withhold funding from schools that knowingly violate the new limitations and would put government agencies that do so at risk for lawsuits, at the attorney general’s discretion.

The bill seems primarily aimed at “mandatory training” for staff and students. Those trainings can’t “teach, advocate, encourage, promote, or act upon race or sex scapegoating, race stereotyping, specific defined concepts, or prejudice toward others on the basis of any protected characteristics.” Hansen said it’s intended to apply to teaching in the classroom for higher education and public schools, as well.

The bill defines prohibited topics. For example, “race or sex scapegoating” is blaming a race or sex because of their race or sex. “Race or sex scapegoating” also applies to claims that members of a race or sex are inherently racist or sexist and inclined to oppress others.

Other banned concepts include that one sex or race is inherently superior to another, that the U.S. or Nebraska are “fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist,” and several others, including a catch-all: “any other form of race or sex scapegoating or any other form of race stereotyping.”

Public schools and teachers would be banned from requiring student work for or student affiliation with any organization that lobbies for legislation at the local, state or federal level or in social or public policy advocacy.

“It’s OK to help, I think, especially as a Legislature talking about a government entity, to define or identify what we think is appropriate and what we don’t,” Hansen said. He said the hearing process is an opportunity for a “good, open discussion” about the topic.

Rose Godinez, legal director for ACLU of Nebraska, called Hansen’s bill “big government censorship at its worst” and warned it’s “certain to have an impact on teachers and professionals in their manner of teaching on racism and sexism in the United States.”

The list of prohibited topics is long.

“Reading this already causes confusion about what’s permitted and what’s not,” she said. “And that’s what is going to impact both our classrooms and our government agencies, because it is simply unclear, overly broad, and, at the end of the day, it violates our First Amendment rights.”

The bill also specifies what it isn’t intended to do, including that it shouldn’t violate First Amendment rights or undermine schools’ “duty to protect intellectual freedom and free expression.”

Godinez challenged that.

“Just because they had those alleged exceptions — or just because they put ‘this bill does not violate the First Amendment’ — doesn’t make it true,” she said. “The truth is, it does violate the First Amendment and has a chilling impact on teaching.”

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Godinez pointed to the pushback against a resolution University of Nebraska Regent and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen introduced last year seeking to ban “any imposition” of critical race theory at NU. Regents rejected that resolution. And, she pointed to an ACLU-backed lawsuit challenging a similar law in Oklahoma. Litigation is on the table here, too, if LB 1077 passes, she said.

Melissa Lee, spokesperson for the University of Nebraska system, said in a statement that NU has “strong nondiscrimination policies in place that apply to all classroom, employment and campus activities.”

“As President Carter and the chancellors have said before, academic freedom is a cherished ideal in higher education, and we are proud that our campuses are places where all viewpoints are considered and all may express their opinions freely,” Lee said. “We are confident in our existing policies and practices, and in the processes available for students, faculty and staff to report concerns. We will closely review this proposed legislation and its potential impact on academic freedom and university operations.”

Bills that limit how teachers can talk about racism and sexism have become common amid the political fervor centered on “critical race theory,” and Hansen said his bill is modeled after other states’ efforts.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that is decades old and views racism as systemic, embedded in systems and policies, rather than as an individual issue. It’s generally taught at the graduate level, but opponents use the term to cover a broad range of anti-racism and diversity curriculum and initiatives.

According to an analysis by Education Week, a news organization focused on K-12 education, 33 states “have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism” since January 2021, and 14 have enacted the bans or restrictions.

Hansen on Tuesday also introduced LB 1078, which would ban public school students from having or using personal electronic devices, such as smartphones, in the classroom except in emergencies, when they have permission or when they have a note from a health care provider.

Among other bills introduced Tuesday:

Organization discrimination. Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk introduced LB 1050, which would ban public colleges and universities from discriminating against political, religious or ideological student organizations because of an organization’s viewpoint or expression of that viewpoint, or because of requirements for leaders and members to adhere to particular beliefs and standards of conduct or commit to furthering the group’s mission. Students and organizations could bring civil litigation against the school under the bill.

Last year, a Christian student organization filed a lawsuit in federal court against the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and alleged the university discriminated against the group’s views. Earlier this month, UNL and the other defendants requested the case be dismissed. A ruling hasn’t been made on that request.

A new department. Sen. Justin Wayne and three co-sponsors proposed, in LB 1073, creating a “Department of Housing and Urban Development,” to consolidate housing programs under one agency that’s focused on addressing housing shortages and homelessness and coordinating efforts to address related issues.

More ARPA asks. Ideas keep flowing for how the state should spend $1.04 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. Hansen introduced LB 1079, which would use half the federal funding on prepaid debit cards sent directly to all residents for use at Nebraska businesses.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chair of the Appropriations Committee, introduced a few ARPA bills related to workforce challenges in the behavioral health field and expanding access to those services.

Among other proposals, Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell introduced LB 1055 that would put $50 million toward premium-pay bonuses to front-line nurses, and Gothenburg Sen. Matt Williams proposed using $20 million to award grants for infrastructure related to rural workforce housing (LB 1070).

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