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Ky. lawmakers say they’ve fixed a bill that could have sent teachers to jail for classroom speech

J. Tyler Franklin

Republicans in the Kentucky General Assembly say they’ve fixed a bill that would have created criminal penalties, including jail time, for teachers who run afoul of new “anti-critical race theory”-inspired restrictions on classroom speech.

The provisions are part of Senate Bill 1. The General Assembly overrode a veto from Gov. Andy Beshear to pass it Wednesday. The law discourages teachers from connecting the country’s racist past—especially slavery and Jim Crow—to present racial disparities. 

It also has provisions teachers worry will limit their ability to teach about current events and controversial topics, such as racism and sexism.
The bill itself doesn’t contain any mention of criminal penalties. But earlier this week, education advocates withthe Prichard Committee foundthat when the bill was added to the existing law, it connected to statutes that created criminal penalties for teachers who break it. The existing penalties in the older statute were originally for breaking campaign finance and ethics laws in school board elections. They include jail time, fines and ineligibility to teach in the state for five years, or to ever run for school board. 

“This was never the intention,” Republican Sen. Max Wise told the Senate Thursday.

“There’s not a single person in this chamber or the other chamber that would have been wishing to punish, or intentionally punish, any educator for speech in the classroom,” Wise said.

Wise offered another piece of legislation, House Bill 44, as a “fix,” which removes the criminal penalties by amending the older statute that SB 1 connected to. 

The fix passed both chambers Thursday afternoon with support from all but three lawmakers. Republican Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown said he didn’t support HB 44 because of other provisions that allow students to have an excused absence for mental health reasons.

HB 44 was originally wholly aimed at allowing districts to create excused absences for mental health. Students brought the legislation to lawmakers.

Benton Republican Sen. Danny Carroll and Union Republican Sen. John Schickel also voted against removing the criminal penalties.

The measure heads to Beshear’s desk.

Louisville Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowski supported the fix, but she said the bill still leaves teachers open to criminal penalties under other statutes HB 44 did not address.

Bojanowski said parents who believe teachers are running afoul of the speech restrictions could still file complaints of “official misconduct,” a criminal misdemeanor that can carry up to 12 months in jail.

“What if the parent is a Holocaust denier? Would the teacher potentially be criminally liable of official misconduct in the second degree if the Holocaust is taught without honoring the student’s perspective that the Holocaust did not occur?” she asked.

Other provisions

In addition to the restrictions on classroom speech, SB 1 takes decision-making power over curriculum and hiring away from school-based councils of parents and teachers, and gives it to local superintendents.

It alsotargets the Jefferson County Board of Education,limiting the board to one meeting every four weeks during which they can approve administrative matters.

Jefferson County Board of Education Chair Diane Porter has vowed to pursue legal action to block that part of the legislation.

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