Florida’s LGBT School Censorship Bill Is a Lawsuit Factory That Overrules Many Parents

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When I was a closeted high school student in Florida in the late 1980s, discussions about gay people popped up in classes on a regular basis. Discussions about gay men, anyway. This was during the deepest, darkest part of the AIDS crisis, when gay men by their very existence were treated in some parts of American culture as threats to public health.

Many of the comments and observations by students—some of which were obviously parroting what they were told at home—were deeply ignorant, even at a time when we were still learning how HIV was spread. During a class exercise in which students decided what the laws of their own imaginary country would be, one of my classmates decided his regime would execute anybody who was gay because he believed it would prevent the spread of HIV.

Teachers by and large did not touch these conversations with a 10-foot pole, though at that point I was savvy enough to recognize the unstated distaste some of them expressed. The school didn’t have any out gay students back then (much later, I’d find out that many of my classmates suspected I was gay anyway). Sodomy was against the law in Florida back then and the very idea of same-sex marriage recognition was absurd.

Times have changed a lot since then. Sodomy is legal and gay marriage is recognized in all 50 states (and supported by the vast majority of Americans—including Republicans). HIV hasn’t been eliminated (yet!), but it is now manageable.

I bring all this up because I find it absolutely bizarre that some small group of lawmakers suddenly thinks people want to relive that era with a bill in Florida that aims to censor school discussions of LGBT issues. Somehow this part of the culture war is back, even though this part of the culture shift has been successful and is widely embraced and normalized—and that’s not going to change.

In Florida, Republican lawmakers have introduced H.B. 1557, a bill that limits how schools and teachers may discuss LGBT issues with students. It pushes school personnel to violate student privacy by telling parents about the student’s well-being even if the student doesn’t want it (thus potentially outing kids who have turned to school staff for help on an issue they don’t want to discuss with parents). And most importantly, it clears parents (and lawyers) to sue and get damages if schools break the extremely vague guidelines described in the bill.

The culture war has made evaluating the actual details of the bill a little challenging. It’s being described as a “Don’t Say Gay” bill—cultural shorthand for the types of bills introduced back in the ’80s and ’90s to try to stop LGBT issues from being discussed in the classroom. On its face, this description seems like an exaggeration. H.B. 1557 in its text doesn’t fully ban discussions of LGBT topics in school. And the typical outrage-based response makes it very easy for its supporters to insist that the bill isn’t about censorship but rather establishing appropriate guidelines for school discussions.

Here’s what the text of the bill actually says:

A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.

While that sounds almost reasonable—it’s not unusual or weird to push education on sexual issues to secondary schooling—the second part of the sentence is oppressively vague. The bill does not explain what sort of discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity is appropriate for which ages. The Florida Department of Education will hammer that out through policies. So, to be clear, government bureaucrats, not parents, will still be deciding what everybody’s kids will be taught.

It’s actually the next section of the bill that shows why the vagueness of the previous section is very, very bad:

A parent of a student may bring an action against a school district to obtain a declaratory judgment that a school district procedure or practice violates this paragraph and seek injunctive relief. A court may award damages and shall award reasonable attorney fees and court costs to a parent who receives declaratory or injunctive relief.

This bill is actually intended to serve as a lawsuit factory for culture war organizations to go after schools using parents as proxies. Because there isn’t any objective measurement of “appropriateness,” any parent can decide any level of discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity is too much and sue, forcing schools to have to shell out money to defend themselves.

Even if the school system can prove that its classroom discussion of LGBT issues is appropriate, it’s a burden that schools will want to avoid. The subtext here is obvious: Don’t bring up LGBT issues in the classroom at all. It’s soft censorship via threats of lawsuits.

In the current culture war over whether critical race theory is or should be taught in schools, we’re seeing the consequences. Any discussion of anything that touches on the issue of racism at all is being called “critical race theory.” Schools are dealing with parents complaining about students simply being taught black history.

The fact that the bill authorizes lawsuits gives up the game that it isn’t about setting “appropriate” boundaries for discussion. Lawsuits should be reserved for punishing behavior that is dangerous or threatening, not merely controversial. This is not about bringing parents to the table, despite Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ comments in support of the bill. Bringing parents into the discussion would mean recognizing that parents have differing comfort levels on the topic. This bill instead gives the most conservative parents the ability to veto school discussions that other parents are perfectly fine with.

It’s worth noting that this same core conservative political constituency that says this is all about parents’ rights are also the people who are pushing forward bills that would criminalize gender-affirming treatments for minors, completely overruling the decisions being made by parents on how to care for their children. The message here is clear: Only some parents’ rights matter.

People who genuinely support school choice and parent participation in education need to understand what this bill does. It’ll lead to the same terrible outcomes as lawmakers or school districts removing books from school libraries in response to some parents’ complaints. While parents should have control over the educational opportunities of their own children, they should not have such power over other people’s kids. H.B. 1557 actually takes power away from many parents, and if DeSantis were truly serious about parents’ rights, he would veto this bill should it pass.

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