By Kaitlyn Shepherd


Tennessee’s Legislature passed a law that strengthens protections for free speech and resists the progressive ideology dominating the state’s public colleges and universities. This legislative victory is thanks in part to a pair of reports on the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK) and the Tennessee higher education system, which were written by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Claremont Institute, and Velocity Convergence.


The Tennessee Legislature clearly understands the threat that critical social justice (CSJ) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies pose to higher education.


Tennessee’s law is significant for several reasons.


First, it promotes ideological diversity and freedom of expression by preventing students and professors from being forced to pledge allegiance to several divisive concepts, including the idea that one sex or race is intrinsically superior to another. It also prevents universities from penalizing students and university employees for their “refusal to support, believe, endorse, embrace, confess, act upon, or otherwise assent to … divisive concepts.” Conservative students and faculty members will be more likely to exercise their right to free speech if they know they cannot be punished for expressing views that diverge from the prevailing political or social narratives on campus.


In addition, Tennessee’s law prohibits the state’s public universities from forcing social justice training and materials on members of the campus community, as UTK attempted to do by revising its general education curriculum to focus on global citizenship and service learning, which are two core concepts of CSJ. Tennessee universities will no longer be able to mandate social justice training for students or employees, use any training programs or materials that include instruction in divisive concepts, or use public funding to encourage faculty members to weave divisive concepts into curricula.


Finally, Tennessee’s law fosters greater transparency by requiring public postsecondary institutions to survey students and employees to ascertain “the campus climate with regard to diversity of thought and respondents’ comfort level in speaking freely on campus.” Universities will be required to post the survey results on their websites and give account to the House Education Administration and Education Instruction Committees. Universities will also report to the House and Senate budget-setting committees, which will consider the survey results when setting the universities’ budgets for the fiscal year.


Tennessee lawmakers passed other laws to hold universities accountable. These include:


  • law that requires each university’s grievance procedure for employees to be made available on the university’s website
  • law that creates an institute for American civics at the University of Tennessee


Like their counterparts in Tennessee, Idaho lawmakers have made some progress toward protecting free speech and ideological diversity on college campuses.


In 2021, Idaho lawmakers passed legislation preventing students in public K-12 schools and institutions of higher learning from being directed or compelled “to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” three tenets of critical race theory. The law prevents students from being classified on the basis of race or color and prohibits public educational institutions from using any “course of instruction or unit of study directing or otherwise compelling students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to any of the tenets identified” in the law. It also prevents public funding from being used for any of these purposes.


However, there is still work to be done. Unlike Tennessee’s law, the 2021 Idaho law does not:


  • Protect university employees
  • Prevent ideological discrimination in hiring practices, tenure, or promotion
  • Protect university students and employees from mandatory divisive trainings
  • Prevent universities from incentivizing employees with public funds to weave divisive concepts into curricula
  • Require biennial surveys of campus climate regarding free speech and presentation to the Legislature


During the 2022 legislative session, Idaho lawmakers failed to hold institutions of higher education accountable.


Idaho lawmakers could have passed the Protecting Free Speech in Higher Education Act, which was designed to protect the rights of members of the campus community to speak, protest, carry signs, assemble, and distribute flyers, among other expressive activities. The bill would have prohibited free speech zones, required universities to broadcast the “laws, policies, and expectations of students regarding free expression on campus,” and mandated reporting to the Legislature and governor about the campus free speech climate and related complaints. However, the bill stalled on amending orders in the Senate and never became law.


The Idaho Legislature also failed to penalize universities for continuing to promote social justice advocacy and programs, contrary to legislative direction. Meanwhile, the institutions continue to employ DEI administrators and maintain centers dedicated to DEI, like the Blue Sky Institute at Boise State University and the Diversity Resource Center at Idaho State University.


Idaho’s lawmakers made no move to ban universities from requiring faculty members and job applicants to sign diversity statements pledging fealty to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their respective departments.


Idaho lawmakers would be wise to follow the example of their Tennessee counterparts and act to hold universities accountable.