Similar pattern nationwide; press conference set for 10 am

 

10 am: ADDS 11Alive ALEC investigation 

by Robin Kemp

When a dozen high school and college students from across the state showed up at the Gold Dome Monday to speak in opposition to House Bill 1084–the “Protect Students First Act” that would ban discussing so-called “divisive concepts” about race or politics in schools—they were not given an opportunity to do so.

The published agenda contains the line, “Agenda is subject to change at the discretion of the Chairman.”

Citing time constraints, Senate Education and Youth Committee Chair Chuck Payne (R-54, Dalton) instead asked those who had signed up to speak in opposition to the bill to stand. Of the 14 citizens who had signed up to speak, 12 were opposed to the bill.

“Can we allow them to speak, Mr. Chairman?” asked Sen. Lester Jackson (D-2, Savannah).  .

“No, we don’t have time to do that,” Payne replied. “We’re gonna have to move on.”

The faces of students and others standing in opposition to the bill (behind the bill’s author, Rep. Will Wade, R-9, Dawsonville) were cut off in the shot from the Senate Education and Youth Committee hearing Monday.

In a press release, the students said, “After nearly 40 days of a legislative session where politicians have prioritized politics over communities, today the Senate Education Committee chose to suppress the voices of students who drove four hours from Savannah, GA, to speak up for their rights. Students put their names down to testify yet when Georgia’s legislators were faced with the voices of Black, brown, and queer young people standing before them, they balked. Our students deserve better.”

Presenting his substitute version with “very, very minor” changes hammered out in consultation with Sen. Bo Hatchett (R-50, Cornelia), Rep. Will Wade (R-9, Dawsonville) said he was intent on halting “the divisiveness of, if you want to call it the far left and the far right, the fringe frustrations that may exist, going to bad places, and how that relates to exterior of the school system…that we limit the opportunity for divisiveness to come into the classroom, and for me, the largest divisiveness is based on where we’ve come in our country. We want to ensure that race is not used to pit children against each other in the learning environment.”

As of press time, the version of the bill presented to the committee (LC 49 00983S) had not yet been updated online as the bill’s latest version (LC 49 0887S).

Sound familiar?

Many bills before the Georgia Assembly and other state houses come from the conservative policy bill mill ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. A similar organization, the American City County Exchange, pushes boilerplate legislation at the local level.

11Alive’s Brendan Keefe tracked down Georgia lawmakers getting their legislative marching orders from ALEC during a closed-door meeting:

Smart ALEC: The Backroom Where Laws Are Born from Brendan Keefe on Vimeo.

But the “divisive concepts” language in HB 1084 is almost identical to that found in Executive Order 13950 by former President Donald Trump, dated September 22, 2020. That order was issued “to promote economy and efficiency in Federal contracting, to promote unity in the Federal workforce, and to combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.”

The full executive order makes several rhetorical turns, linking “woke” sensitivity training for federal employees with the white-supremacist declarations of Stephen Douglas, and warning  members of the military not to “teach, instruct, or train any member… to believe any of the divisive concepts set forth in section 2(a) of this order.”

President Joe Biden revoked the order on January 20, 2021, replacing it with a policy “that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”

Similar bills that use the language of Executive Order 13950 are before or have passed in other state legislatures, including Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

In Alabama, Black lawmakers were not allowed to speak on the bill before it passed out of committee:


Sen. Elena Parent (D-42, Atlanta), who serves on the Senate Education and Youth committee, was brushed off when she said the committee had disregarded its own rules and stifled public comment.

She later tweeted, “[T]he Republicans’ total disregard for Senate rules is a shameful, anti-democratic attempt to silence the voices of Georgians, including students who traveled from across the state to speak in opposition to the bill.”

Parent made the students’ plight known on social media:

Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-89, Atlanta) also expressed outrage at the students’ treatment:

 

Watch the hearing on HB 1084:

Senate Committee on Education and Youth – 3/28/2022 from Georgia State Senate on Vimeo.

The Clayton Crescent spoke with Georgia Tech student Alex Ames, a spokesperson for the student coalition, which included the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, The DEEP Center, and Intercultural Development Research Association. She said the Savannah contingent had made sacrifices to be there.

“Our team has been coming to the Capitol pretty regularly. Jordan and James, Ben and myself, a bunch of different students from around the Atlanta area go to colleges near here,” Ames said. “We all just graduated from public high schools like a year or two ago, each of us. But the Savannah kids got a hotel and everything. It’s a four-hour trip. And they’re all high schoolers. So they came with some adult chaperones. And they specifically picked this day because they knew that the bill banning Black history in Georgia would come up that day, HB 24. And we’re really keen on speaking on it, especially as many of them are students of color. And it showed up and [Chuck] Payne, who is the chairman of the Senate Education hearing–he’s done this before, actually–everybody signed up on the signup sheet, you know, it was handed out, you can put your name on it sign up, but then even though everybody signed up, he just kind of midway through decided, ‘Oh, we’re just not going to have time for public comment today,’ which is pretty wild, considering this is a really massive bill, and you have literal students in the room who skipped school to be there. So he canceled testimony.”

Ames said the students were extremely upset.

“The kids got really emotional, you know. Somebody shouted out, ‘Georgia will remember you for this.’ And it’s true. They’re trying to rewrite history, but they can’t rewrite the fact that we have documented that they are trying to suppress the voices of people actually impacted by the legislation, saying this is wrong, it’s bad policy, and it’s bad for kids.”

Nguyen said, “This session we have witnessed Republicans attack the public education system under the guise of transparency–but the rules don’t apply to them. They’ve consistently blocked members of the public from having their voices heard and it’s instrumental that students get their chance to weigh in on decisions that directly impact them.”

Ames said this isn’t the first time the students have been silenced by Georgia lawmakers: “They do this quite often to us.”

According to “my friend Sandy, who’s been there longer than us–none of us have been here in any previous years, so we kind of are learning as we go–she says, I mean, yeah, it’s kind of they make up the rules as they go. And it’s been a lot of breaking this session from Republicans. You know, they’ll rewrite the rules on local redistricting, And the’ll rewrite the rules on this line where, if there are a ton of people showing up to testify, they’re just going to say, ‘let’s not do public comment today.’ Because they know what makes them look bad when there’s a bunch of, you know, old white guys up there, trying to make a point and then you have kids in front of you saying, ‘Hey, if you actually cared about me, you’d fund my schools. Something that they’re certainly not willing to do for the past two decades.”

It wasn’t long before sympathetic legislators gave the students a much larger platform than the hearing room:

And some of the students read their statements to the world, via Twitter:

“You know, the author of the bill walked up to some of our students a few days ago, [Sen.] Jason Anavitarte [R-31, Dallas] and said, ‘Because of you guys, I removed the portions of the bill you wanted me to and you know, now this Black history ban no longer applies to colleges, and it no longer steals school funding away,” Ames said. “Those are two really major wins, but it still is, at its core, a ban on truth in K-12 education in Georgia, you know, and myself, as someone who went through public schools, someone whose parents are public school teachers, that’s just wrong.”

She added, “And it’s a really dangerous thing to do in a session where we’ve seen legislators banning books, banning history, banning mask mandates, banning vaccine requirements, banning all sorts of things necessary for our public education and our children.”

A press conference is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday on the South staircase, where the students will be joined by Parent, Nguyen, Rep. Derek Mallow (D-163, Savannah), Sen. Lester Jackson, and The Black College Firm.

Other bills threatening First Amendment rights are in play this session. SB 171 would require permits for any protest–giving government officials “potentially unbridled discretion to pick and choose protests they deem acceptable,” says Free Press Senior Counsel and Director of Digital Justice and Civil Rights Nora Benavidez. The bill also threatens state employees with losing their jobs if they exercise their First Amendment rights, and would make local governments “civilly liable for any damages resulting from their failure to ‘provide reasonable law enforcement protection during a riot or unlawful assembly” and “greatly expands the definition of ‘unlawful’ assembly,” Benavidez said, calling it “dangerous and unnecessary.”

SB 226 imposes a new method of challenging school library books as of January 1, 2023. Richard Griffiths, president of the Clayton Crescent Board of Trust and past president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, writes in an op-ed, “With this bill, state lawmakers aim to require local school boards to create a complaint-resolution process that would overrule already-in-place local systems for challenging materials in school libraries. The result would be an erosion of local control over decisions that have an impact on the schoolchildren in your community.

“The danger, too, is that processes would break down: Books would be removed from the bookshelves while under lengthy bureaucratic reviews, even if the ultimate outcome is to restore the book to the shelf. Then another complaint starts the process over, and, again, the book disappears.”

Learn about various bills this session that, if passed, would silence free expression and dissent and which pose serious First Amendment threats.


Ed. Note: The Clayton Crescent is a 501(c)(3) news organization. We do not endorse candidates nor do we advocate for positions other than First Amendment issues.

Robin Kemp

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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