Imagine a society in which a teacher is on trial for corrupting the youth of the community by teaching them about the existence of contraception to protect against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
Imagine being sixteen years old, being hauled in front of a judge, maybe even a jury, and having attorneys ask you personal, private questions about which specific sexual acts you have or have not engaged in with your boyfriend or girlfriend, under oath, while a court reporter feverishly takes down your testimony. All while your parents sit at one table, listening to every sordid detail, and representatives from your school sit at the other table.
Imagine being asked which sexual acts you have or haven’t done. When you did them. With whom. And where you learned about such acts.
Now, imagine you are a gay, lesbian, or bisexual teenager, who hasn’t come out yet being asked these questions. Can you imagine a more invasive act of government intrusion into your privacy?
Imagine a society in which a curious teenage girl consensually touching her boyfriend’s butt at a school dance exposes that school to legal liability over what it may have taught her in health class and how that may have led her to touch her boyfriend.
The notion of a judicial tribunal that questions teachers accused of morally corrupting teenagers sounds like product of theocratic governments. Forcing children to testify about their private sexual practices sounds like something you’d find in a country that doesn’t respect individual or privacy rights. But this is actually the law of Tennessee now. And if the Ohio House Republicans get their way, it’ll soon be the law in the State of Ohio, too.
In yesterday’s revised budget bill, Republicans included a provision that would “prohibit the teaching of sexual education coursework that endorses non-abstinence as an acceptable behavior or promotes sexual gateway activity“. This includes touching of the “thigh, genitals, buttock, pubic region or… breasts”.
It also prevents schools from handing out condoms or teaching kids how to properly use condoms, and it allows parents or guardians to sue for up to $5,000 if the law is broken.
Ironically, the legislation in Tennessee was passed because, its supporters said, Tennessee has the seventh-highest teen pregnancy birth rate and has the eleventh highest rate of HIV in the nation despite the fact that Tennessee law has required abstinence-only education for years.
Apparently, Tennessee thought their problems stemmed from not enough abstinence in their abstinence only education system and not from, you know, actual facts like the countless studies that point out that teen pregency and HIV infection rates tend to be higher in areas with only abstenence-only education.
A year later, and Tennessee is still 13th in teenage pregnancy rates (note: that’s different from teenage birth rates). So how’s that working for ya, Tennessee?
Well, apparently, so good that the Ohio Republican Party wants to institute the same policies here in Ohio, despite the fact that Ohio already has a teen pregnancy rate BELOW the national average. Tennessee is the same State that once put a teacher on trial for teaching evolution in what became known as the Scopes Monkey trial. Now, they (and Ohio) want to have the courts scope out how kids are monkeying around on dates.In 1965, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that a State cannot ban the sale of contraceptives. The Republican’s new plan is a clever end run around the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead of an outright ban on contraceptives or on teaching about them, this plan would make it so cost prohibitive, by creating a new legal liability issue, that it would generate economic pressure for schools to stop teaching it.
While no school is likely to actually incur the $5,000 fine by a court order, the prospective of getting a quick financial payoff means some parent will undoubtedly file a sketchy lawsuit claiming their precious lil’ snowflake would never had made it to second base but for their high school health teacher’s lesson plan.
The cost of defending these claims being higher than the actual damages means that schools will likely settle instead of defending against the claims. And while they may not have the money to pay these claims (thanks to underfunding by the same Ohio Republicans pushing this), they sure as heck cannot afford the legal bills to defend themselves either.
Eventually, the insurance companies will tell schools that they either drop sex education altogether or risk sky-high premiums. And that’s the real aim: To change the legal landscape in order to make teaching responsible, effective sexual education cost-prohibitive.
And it’s not just school teachers at risk. The bill doesn’t clearly define “instructor,” but both in Ohio and Tennessee, the language was clear that it was targeting Planned Parenthood’s programs in the schools.
But it doesn’t stop there. So far as we can tell, there’s no limit to who can be liable in school for promoting contraceptive use, including other students. For a party that bemoans a litigious society and supposedly advocates for tort reform, the Republicans sure are begging to send in the lawyers on this one.
We have been tempted for years to hold an annual Plunderbund Award of Excellence in the Dumbest Piece of Legislation in Ohio. This bill would certainly fit in with other nominees like the the “heartbill bill” and the ban on the non-existant practice of creating human-animal hybrid clones. Sadly, we worry that such an award might actually encourage one of these idiots to try to win it.
Public schools should exist to help educate our children so they can be effective and contributive members of our society, both politically and economically. Schools are not designed, equipped or suited to be defenders of every boy or girl’s chastity.
Ohio doesn’t need this proposal. It seeks to create a solution to a totally unidentified problem. And whatever problem the Ohio Republicans think they are addressing, it’s one that our courts shouldn’t be asked to address. There should be something totally un-American to the prospect of allowing parents to sue a teacher over a lesson plan, especially one that teaches nothing more than what is safe, legal, and works.
Here’s Stephen Colbert’s take on Tennessee’s version of the law: