Senate committee OK’s bill prohibiting public school employees from calling students by preferred name or pronoun

Arkansas state Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, presents House Bill 1468 during the House session on Monday, March 27, 2023, at the State Capitol in Little Rock. The bill requires school employees to get a parent's written consent before using a student's preferred name if it doesn't match the name on their birth certificate. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

A bill to prohibit public school employees from calling students by their preferred name or pronoun without permission from a parent advanced out of a Senate committee Wednesday.

House Bill 1468 by Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, would require a teacher to have written permission from a parent or guardian to address a student by a pronoun "inconsistent with the unemancipated minor's or student's biological sex," or name other than the one listed on the birth certificate. The bill also would prohibit public schools and universities from punishing staff for not using a student's preferred name or pronoun.

Long said the bill would protect the right of conscience for public school staff who do not want to use a student's preferred pronoun or name and notify parents if students ask a teacher to refer to them by a name or pronoun of their preference.

The committee passed the bill through a voice vote, sending it to the Senate for action. The bill passed the House of Representatives earlier this month.

The bill would not apply to derivatives of given names such as "Bob" for "Robert," Long said. But school staff would not be able to refer to students by nicknames without written approval from a parent or guardian.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, a former teacher, criticized the bill, saying nicknames she would give students such as "sweetheart" or "teddy bear " to show affection would now open schools to litigation if written parental permission was not given.

Long said he tried to exempt nicknames from the bill but could not find a way around it.

"There may be some hassles basically as far as the nicknames are concerned, but I think that pales compared to the downside of not doing anything," he said.

[DOCUMENT: Read the bill targeting "compelled speech" »]

"I don't know a lot of things, but I know good teaching, and good teaching is respect for every kid in your classroom regardless of who they are," Chesterfield said. "It doesn't matter, they are God's children and they deserve respect. And we are killing the spontaneity of teaching every single day with all of these culture wars. They don't have anything to do with teaching."

For Mark Johnson, the bill's Senate sponsor, it's personal. He cited a story about a friend, Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio who was fired for not using a transgender student's preferred pronoun. Meriwether sued the university and later agreed to a $400,000 settlement in April 2022, according to NBC News.

"This is a real person that I know well that was wronged," Johnson said. "This is not about attacking students, this is about protecting educators."

If passed, a person who is harmed by a violation of the bill could bring a cause of action seeking injunctive relief, monetary damages and attorney fees.

The bill has drawn a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and Arkansas Advocates for Family and Children, who have said the bill is aimed at transgender students, many of whom are bullied and suffer from depression and anxiety.

"House Bill 1468 would give free rein to faculty members, teachers, and employees of public schools and state supported higher educational institutions to disregard and disrespect students' names and pronouns, thereby inviting them to out trans students publicly to their peers," ACLU of Arkansas President Holly Dickson wrote in a letter to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

"It would also limit the speech of school employees who wish to affirm a trans student's gender identity."