Committee advances bill preventing Utah public teachers, staff from expressing political opinions

Feb 13, 2024, 6:30 AM | Updated: 7:57 am

FILE: Mountain View Elementary coach and teacher Katelyn Bradley instructs students during a team p...

FILE: Mountain View Elementary coach and teacher Katelyn Bradley instructs students during a team practice on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 at the school in Salt Lake City. A proposed bill would limit the political speech of teachers in Utah schools. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

(Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill advancing in the House would prevent Utah public school teachers and staff from expressing any kind of political or social speech to students, including classroom displays.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, said HB303  is intended to build trust between teachers and parents, and that it only affects teachers and staff. The bill does not limit what students can say.

“Students can have clubs around certain social issues, like an LGBT student club,” Stenquist said. “Or, if students wanted to lead a prayer before a sports game or something like that, they would be free to do so.”

Most schools in Utah require some kind of adult advisor to start a club. Stenquists said that, under his bill, teachers would be free to watch over a student club. But they could not lead or facilitate what the club does.

HB303 opponents say bill infringes on teacher speech

Opponents of HB303 say the bill infringes on the First Amendment free speech rights of Utah teachers.

But Stenquist said restrictions on political conversations in the workplace are normal.

“Teachers are employees, and it’s very common that employers can put limitations on types of discussions and displays, things like … political speech, in a work environment.”

Stenquist said HB303 would keep Utah classrooms neutral, and foster a conflict-free atmosphere between teachers and students.

“My goal is just to help reassure parents that when they’re sending their children to school (the children) are being taught curriculum. They’re being taught reading and math.”

Stenquist’s bill also addresses lesson plans. Teachers and instructors wouldn’t be able to suggest or encourage a student to reconsider any personal viewpoints they may hold. 

Equality Utah says ‘vague language’ is problematic

In a press release, Troy Williams of Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, said there were certain parts of Stenquist’s bill that his group could support. 

These include portions of HB303 that would prevent teachers from disparaging a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We are very concerned, however, about the bill’s use of vague terms: “endorse, promote, or disparage” in conjunction with “political or social belief or viewpoint,” Williams said.

“Vague or uncertain terminology can lead to uneven enforcement and lack of clarity for teachers and administrators. If passed by the legislature, we fear that these uncertain provisions will have a chilling effect on our teachers’ ability to exercise their First Amendment rights, and will ultimately lead to litigation.”

HB303 passed out of a committee on a vote of 6-5 on Monday.

Simone Seikaly contributed.

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Committee advances bill preventing Utah public teachers, staff from expressing political opinions