Divisive Concepts: Academic Freedom Under Attack in Tennessee

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by John LaDue. John is the Information Literacy Librarian at the Paul Meek Library which serves the University of Tennessee at Martin.

In their latest attack on public education, the Tennessee legislature has voted to amend 2022’s so-called “divisive concepts” law to expand its reach further into public higher education. Beginning with 2021’s anti-critical race theory bill, the Tennessee legislature has repeatedly attempted to dictate what can and cannot be taught in public schools. In 2022, the legislature enacted the first iteration of the “divisive concepts” law, which, in terms of in-class instruction, targeted primarily public K-12 schools, although there were many provisions that targeted higher education. That law was recently amended to apply the in-class instruction restrictions to public higher education institutions, such as the one I work at, the University of Tennessee at Martin.

Tennessee State Senator Joey Hensley denied that the legislation would inhibit the teaching of the role of racism in the United States, stating “We’re not saying people shouldn’t teach about that, and they should teach about that and how the Native Americans were treated—they were treated badly, too, [but] all of that was many years ago”. The idea that the mistreatment of Native populations ended “many years ago” flies in the face of reality and stands in sharp contradiction to the ACRL 2023 opening keynote address by Rebecca Nagle. The same legislature that recently expelled two Black legislators wants us to not teach about systemic racism because that would be divisive.

One of the outcomes of these laws is the creation of a reporting function where students or employees who feel that the school, or an instructor, has violated the law can file a report with the school and the school would have to investigate the claim and file a yearly report to the comptroller of the treasury on all such reports.

Some of the special programming I put on this year could easily come under attack, such as a lunch series on researching Black liberation movements. However, even some of the basic functions of my job can become a point of contention. As an example, I teach about information, which includes who owns and controls the production and distribution of information: the political economy of information. In my teaching, I explain to students that there are publishing companies who take works given freely by academics and then sell access to them back to institutions like UTM at shockingly high profit margins and that part of what their tuition and fees goes toward is funding those profit margins. If I do that and a student feels that I am promoting resentment of the class that owns publishers like Elsevier and EBSCO, then I can be reported for violating the law, specifically divisive concept 10 (“Promotes division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people;”).

The ALA code of ethics, in part, states, “We work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; to confront inequity and oppression; to enhance diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, profession, and associations through awareness, advocacy, education, collaboration, services, and allocation of resources and spaces. To uphold the ethics of our profession puts me in violation of Tennessee law.

Personally, I have no intentions of altering what I teach or how I teach it; I would rather be unemployed than unprincipled. However, this legislation has an obvious and intentional chilling effect on educators throughout the state. At the University of Tennessee at Martin, both the Student Government Association and Faculty Senate have passed resolutions condemning these laws; I call on all individuals and organizations in Tennessee and beyond to stand with us and join in our condemnation.


Allison, Natalie. 2021. “Tennessee Bans Public Schools from Teaching Critical Race Theory amid National Debate.” The Tennessean. May 5, 2021. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2021/05/05/tennessee-bans-critical-race-theory-schools-withhold-funding/4948306001/.

Buranyi, Stephen. 2017. “Is the Staggeringly Profitable Business of Scientific Publishing Bad for Science?” The Guardian, June 27, 2017, sec. Science. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science.

Fawcett, Eliza, and Emily Cochrane. 2023. “Tennessee House Expulsions: What You Need to Know.” The New York Times, April 13, 2023, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/article/tennessee-house-democrats-expulsion-shooting-gun-control.html.

Garcia, Raymond. 2023. “The Stories We Tell.” American Libraries Magazine. March 28, 2023. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/the-stories-we-tell/.

Kim, Jane, and Randall Barnes. 2023. “UT Martin’s Faculty Leadership Formally Condemns Two Tennessee Laws as Racist, but behind Closed Doors.” WPSD Local 6. April 25, 2023. https://www.wpsdlocal6.com/news/ut-martins-faculty-leadership-formally-condemns-two-tennessee-laws-as-racist-but-behind-closed-doors/article_efd94a4e-e3de-11ed-a033-07fccfd39aaf.html.

Kruesi, Kimberlee. 2022. “Colleges Face Legal Risks under ‘divisive Concept’ Bill.” AP NEWS. March 8, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/education-lawsuits-race-and-ethnicity-racial-injustice-tennessee-072fe36a7a05b3f931a71ba82d217209.

Lamb, Zacharie. 2023. “UT-Martin Student Government Passes Resolution Condemning Tennessee’s Laws as Racist.” WKMS. February 27, 2023. https://www.wkms.org/education/2023-02-27/ut-martin-sga-passes-resolution-condemning-tns-recent-education-laws.

Quinn, Ryan. 2023. “Tennessee Again Targets ‘Divisive Concepts.’” Inside Higher Ed. April 18, 2023. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/faculty-issues/diversity-equity/2023/04/18/tennessee-again-targets-divisive-concepts.

Tennessee General Assembly Legislation. n.d. “HB 1376.” Tennessee General Assembly Legislation. Accessed April 28, 2023. https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/Default.aspx?BillNumber=HB1376.

WBIR. 2023. “TN Bill That Allows Students to Report Professors Who Teach ‘divisive Concepts’ Passes House and Senate.” Wbir.Com. March 6, 2023. https://www.wbir.com/article/news/education/new-bill-would-strengthen-rules-over-what-can-be-taught-in-classrooms/51-ddd267e4-3d98-4de0-bb2e-3284740b4cb7.

Zalusky, Steve. 2021. “ALA Adopts New Code of Ethics Principle on Racial and Social Justice.” Text. News and Press Center. July 28, 2021. https://www.ala.org/news/member-news/2021/07/ala-adopts-new-code-ethics-principle-racial-and-social-justice.

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