Talking Points

Republicans want to create a red state utopia — by suing teachers

Can conservatives sue their way into creating a red state utopia? We might find out soon. Republican legislators in Texas created a model last year with the awful new abortion law that lets private citizens sue abortion providers. Now their colleagues in other GOP-led states seem eager to follow that example.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed the "Stop Woke Act" that would let Florida parents sue schools that offered instruction in critical race theory. Another Sunshine State offering — dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by opponents — would allow similar lawsuits if teachers discuss sexuality and gender issues in the classroom. Over in Oklahoma, parents could sue teachers who promote concepts that violate their students' "closely held religious beliefs." 

It's plain that Republican legislators are looking for opportunities to enshrine white Christian sensibilities into state law.

Here's the other objectionable aspect of the new proposals: Public schools are state institutions, and teachers are agents of the state. Usually, governments go out of the way to immunize officials and their agencies from lawsuits — consider, for example, all the court precedents that make up the doctrine of "qualified immunity," which often shields police officers and other government employees from personal liability for bad acts. Oklahoma law lists dozens of situations in which citizens are prohibited from suing the state; Florida also has strict limits. That's pretty standard. You can sue government officials on occasion, but it's often awfully difficult.

The Florida and Oklahoma bills upend the usual arrangement. You can just imagine what would happen next. Why would America's young teachers take jobs in those states if it means they'll risk personal bankruptcy for saying the wrong thing in class? The GOP proposals wouldn't just enforce a rigid ideological conformity — they'd probably undermine public schools by robbing them of the best talent. Maybe that's the intent

All of this comes with a caveat: It's not entirely clear if these bills will pass in their original form. Goofball ideas in state legislatures often get shunted off to committees to die, lonely and ignored. (The Oklahoma proposal, for example, has just one sponsor at the moment, which is often a reliable sign of legislative doom.) But it's also true that the Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative supermajority has pretty much issued an invitation to right-leaning state legislators to see what they can get away with. Republicans are happy to oblige.