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Legal Insight

Teach Truth: Know Your Rights FAQ

What to know about your rights and protections when teaching about racism, sexism, and historical prejudice, sometimes incorrectly called "critical race theory."
Students in masks using computers in classroom
Published: 09/15/2021

Need more help? If your specific questions about your workplace rights related to these new laws aren't answered below, you can submit them here and we will respond as quickly as possible.

What are these new laws that restrict honesty in education? Why are they being passed right now?

These measures are a cynical attempt to undermine faith in public education and our nation’s educators. They draw on an old playbook of dog-whistle attacks—they’re meant to distract us from some elected leaders’ failure to ensure our public schools have the resources needed so all our students can thrive. Your central responsibility to students remains unchanged by these laws. You should continue to follow your state standards and approved curriculum approaches. It’s educators who know how best to design age-appropriate lessons for students that help them understand our past and prepare for the future.

Where are there laws restricting educators’ ability to teach about racism and prejudice?

Ten states have adopted measures that seek to limit how topics like racism and sexism can be taught in K-12 schools. In Florida and Utah, the measures are in the form of state Board of Education rules. In Arizona, Iowa, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas they are state laws. The measures in Oklahoma, Iowa, and New Hampshire also restrict instruction at the higher education level and/or restrict diversity and inclusion training for public employees including educators.

Can I keep teaching my curriculum? What exactly do these laws ban?

These laws are all different. The most extreme state laws prohibit teaching that the United States is institutionally or systematically racist or sexist, or that people might be consciously or unconsciously biased. Other states have similar, but less extreme, standards in place.

None of these laws prohibit teaching the full sweep of U.S. history, including teaching about the nearly 250 years of slavery that ended only as a result of the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or the rise again of violent white supremacy that ended Reconstruction and has persisted ever since.

What should I do if I’m an educator in a state with one of these measures?

Be sure to check with your local union and state affiliate about exactly what the measure in your state says and how it will be applied. The laws differ and some have specific safe harbor provisions that explain what type of instruction is permitted. Don’t assume that the way you teach will have to change – in fact, given the narrow terms of the laws, you should assume unless your local or state affiliate advises otherwise that the laws do not prohibit age-appropriate instruction aligned to established state standards governing how to teach history, civics instruction, and government classes.

What should I do if my state prohibits instructing students honestly, and I’m disciplined for continuing that instruction?

Your local and state affiliate can defend you through the NEA UniServ and Unified Legal Services Program. NEA is strongly committed to ensuring that teachers who teach the truth with the support of their state and local affiliates are defended. The outcome of any particular case will depend on its details including exactly what was taught, whether it actually violated the law, and whether that law has been enforced fairly. You should know that your speech at work is unlikely to be protected by the First Amendment—although, tenure or similar protections under a collective bargaining agreement may protect you from arbitrary and unfair discipline.

Am I protected outside of the classroom? What actions can I take?

Your speech and activism is most protected outside of school, when speaking up as a citizen on a matter of public concern. Your speech is protected by the First Amendment when you’re speaking up off work time and to the public. Writing a letter to the editor, attending a rally off work time, posting on Facebook about a public event, or speaking to the school board as a citizen are all protected speech. Ask your local what the union is doing to counter these measures if they’re under consideration or were adopted in your district or state. Organize with local parents and students to raise awareness of these measures. Register people to vote to make their voices heard when these measures are being considered!

What if I’m interested in engaging in civil disobedience in response to these laws?

Always remember that educators, especially at the K-12 level, are held to higher standards that may make them vulnerable to discipline or firing—even for off-duty activity. Pledging to or actually violating a law related to your work is serious, and could expose you to adverse employment actions. You should always discuss those risks with your local and state affiliate before signing a pledge or agreeing to an action so that you can make an informed decision.

For more information, including some state-specific guidance, check out this guide.

Join the community of activists committed to advancing social and racial justice in public education

Ensuring opportunity for ALL students to succeed – regardless of ZIP code – is going to take all of us doing our part.
Professor speaking to class of students.

Protecting Our Students' Civil Rights

In the face of federal civil rights rollbacks and threats, educators, parents and students are organizing to adopt school board policies that strengthen student protections. Get inspired by educators and students making change in their communities and find model policies that will empower you to ensure all students’ right to a safe and affirming school.
National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.