“The First Amendment protects students’ and educators’ rights of free speech and equitable learning, and Senate Bill 88 violates these rights by censoring LGBTQ+ questions, concerns, and experiences.” 

ACLU of Georgia First Amendment Policy Advocate Sarah Hunt-Blackwell, testifying before a Senate committee on SB 88, a proposed act that would ban educators from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation with students, along with other bans that stifle educators’ free speech rights. This week at the Capitol, we were thankful for the opportunity to testify against this bill, as public testimony was cut short, leaving dozens of Georgians who signed up to speak waiting for their next opportunity. 

We are gearing up for events in the coming weeks that will allow you to get involved in the legislative process. First, more on Georgia’s “don’t say gay” bill.  

SB 88 had its first hearing before the Senate Education & Youth Committee on Tuesday, February 15. As currently written, the bill:

  • Bans educators from discussions like those mentioned above, even if students initiate the discussion;
  • prohibits families from changing students’ gender on official school forms without a new birth certificate; 
  • and bars school staff from instructing students when dressed in a “sexually provocative manner.” 

Simply put, the bill violates many First Amendment principles.

Despite some lawmakers saying the bill is intended to protect children, there is little evidence that it supports their assertions. We see quite the opposite. Hunt-Blackwell noted that already high suicide rates among LGBTQ+ teens, and rising suicide rates among teen girls, suggest that educators need more resources for these students, not fewer. 

“Educators should be having more of these talks … Discussions about the spectrum of sex and gender identity are the types of conversations that the First Amendment protects,” she told the committee, which shelved the bill for another rewrite.

Following the hearing, a coalition of students, parents, and organizations rallying against SB 88 held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol. Students said they do not need more censorship in the classroom or more laws that target an already vulnerable population. 

“The core of my education has come from an environment that is only possible because students who choose to are able to create a welcoming space for students with any sexual orientation and any gender identity.  I know that no matter how bad my day might be, there’s always a teacher who is there to love and support me and my friends … Taking away the opportunity to build a healthy student-teacher relationship is bound to cause immeasurable damages that lawmakers will never have to face, because lawmakers are no longer vulnerable high school students,” said one of the student speakers, who identified themself as a junior at Innovation Academy in Alpharetta.

Ways to get involved in Georgia’s legislative session

Capitol Observer Training: In an effort that will continue throughout the 2023 session, we’re seeking volunteers to become Capitol Observers. Our next virtual training session is scheduled for Thursday, February 23 at 7 p.m. 

The ACLU of Georgia relies on volunteers to serve as legal observers, who help protect free speech at the Capitol and provide extra eyes and eyes at critical moments such as protests. Registration is required to attend. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram for a sign-up link in the near future.

Student Lobby Day: On March 2, we’re hosting Student Lobby Day, which will be centered on educating high school and college students (ages 16–25) about ACLU priority bills and providing them the opportunity to meet and speak with lawmakers. 

Our policy experts will give a rundown of several student-centered bills, such as this year’s proposed student ID bill. If passed, the bill would allow the use of student IDs issued by private colleges and universities for voting. This bill and the others we will be workshopping should benefit students across Georgia. If you’d like to register yourself, or know a young student who would be interested, visit this link to register.

Jerzy Shedlock (he/him) is a communications strategist at the ACLU of Georgia.