12/16/2021

Fighting to teach honest history in New Hampshire

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Ryan Richman works hard to engage his students. Every week, the high school history teacher asks them to choose a current event from the news, and then show its connection with the past. The class winds up in rich discussions about thorny, sometimes emotional topics like the Rohingya genocide, the Uyghur genocide and the Black Lives Matter movement.

But this sort of stimulating learning may now be illegal, thanks to a New Hampshire law passed in June. So to maintain the right to teach current events and true, engaging history, Richman has joined other educators and parents to bring a lawsuit against the “divisive concepts” law, an attempt by the state to restrict the way discrimination, diversity, bias, justice and struggle are viewed or taught.

Photo of a teacher speaking with students in class

The suit, filed Dec. 13 and brought by three New Hampshire public school teachers, two parents and AFT-New Hampshire, asks the court to declare the law invalid. The suit calls it unconstitutionally vague—so vague that teachers don’t know what or how to meet the confusing requirements under this law while teaching honest, accurate history as required by state law. It violates the 14th Amendment and First Amendment by creating a chilling effect on teacher speech and unfairly discriminating against educators—who could lose their jobs and teaching credentials if found in violation of the statute. And it is in contrast to New Hampshire’s educational standards, which require that all schools teach about “intolerance, antisemitism and national, ethnic, racial or religious hatred and discrimination that have evolved in the past” and that students learn about controversial events from multiple perspectives and ideologies.

The law is “chilling and untenable,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Either teachers attempt to follow a law so defectively vague and broad that they can’t fulfill their instructional duties to adequately educate their students, or they choose to teach as they have and as the state law has long required, and risk career-ending repercussions,” she says. “These educators are faced with an excruciating Hobson’s choice, all at the hands of this effort to smear and shame educators, divide our communities, and deny our kids opportunities to learn and thrive.”

The bill states, in part, that, “No pupil in any public school in this state shall be taught … [t]hat an individual, by virtue of his or her age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” It allows anyone who feels “aggrieved” by a claimed violation of the law to sue a school or school district in superior court, or to file a complaint with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights. Educators found in violation of the law could face disciplinary sanction by the state board of education, which can fire them and strip them of their teaching licenses.

The lawsuit was prompted after Gov. Chris Sununu signed the New Hampshire budget bill, which included the divisive concepts provision; then New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut launched a webpage where the public can file complaints against teachers under the statute. Finally, an extremist group called Moms for Liberty put a $500 bounty on the head of any New Hampshire teacher, offering cash to any informant who successfully lodges a complaint. Since the webpage launched, some teachers have reported online harassment, including obscenities and vicious verbal attacks.

“This law has created fear among teachers who are not actually violating any New Hampshire law, but fear they could be targeted without evidence by people with a political agenda,” says AFT-New Hampshire President Deb Howes. “Educators are terrified of losing their teaching license over simply trying to teach. This is something I never thought would happen in America.”

In addition to bringing the lawsuit, Howes has called for the resignation of Edelblut. “Totally innocent teachers could lose their teaching license over claims that are not backed up by any evidence,” she says, adding that Edelblut has declared “a war on teachers.”

The lawsuit names Edelblut as well as the state attorney general and the chair of the state Commission for Human Rights as defendants.

[Virginia Myers]