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Alabama GOP passes extreme “gag order” to ban diversity discussions in universities

Marchers carry a giant rainbow flag up the steps of the Alabama Capital Building during the Montgomery Pride March and Rally in downtown Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday June 29 , 2019. Pride01
Marchers carry a rainbow flag to the Alabama Capital during the 2019 Pride March and Rally Photo: Mickey Welsh / Advertiser/IMAGN

Alabama Republicans have passed a bill that would limit instruction on so-called “divisive concepts” at state universities while also banning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs and barring transgender students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.

Late last month, PEN America described Alabama’s S.B. 129 as “the most pernicious educational gag order impacting higher education since Florida’s Stop WOKE Act.”

The bill prohibits state agencies, local boards of education, and public institutions of higher learning from sponsoring DEI programs, maintaining DEI departments, and requiring students, employees, and contractors to participate in DEI training. It also bans those entities from requiring “any training, orientation, or course work that advocates for or requires assent to a divisive concept.”

The bill defines a “divisive concept,” in part, as asserting that “by virtue of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin, the individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously” or that they “are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin.”

It does however allow state universities to teach or discuss “any divisive concept in an objective manner and without endorsement” as long as “the institution and its employees do not compel assent to any divisive concept.” Under the proposed legislation, students, staff, and faculty organizations would be allowed to host DEI “programs or discussions that may involve divisive concepts, provided that no state funds are used to sponsor these programs.”

Alabama Republicans also threw in a trans bathroom ban for good measure, requiring state universities to “ensure that every multiple occupancy restroom be designated for use by individuals based on their biological sex.”

Opponents say the bill’s vague language and its provision allowing state universities to “discipline or terminate” employees who knowingly violate it will lead to a chilling effect, with schools eliminating DEI initiatives and banning “divisive concepts” outright, according to the New York Times. Student groups, civil rights advocates, and Alabama Democrats, who have pointed to the state’s racist history, argue S.B. 129 would undercut free speech and efforts to diversify college campuses.

Describing the bill as even more restrictive than Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, PEN America said it would lead to “a campus environment devoid of intellectual freedom.”

S.B. 129 now goes to Gov. Kay Ivey’s (R) desk. If she signs the bill into law, it will go into effect on October 1.

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