First public hearing on Utah’s anti-DEI bill marked by tense debate over discrimination and the words of MLK

Rep. Katy Hall’s measure moves forward on a 12-2 vote and now goes to a vote from the full House. But questions remain about what exactly is impacted by HB261.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, speaks as HB261 is heard in committee during the 2024 legislative session at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

A contentious bill to overhaul diversity offices in education and government across Utah gained initial approval Wednesday — a decision that capped more than two hours of tense public comment in which both sides lobbed accusations of discrimination, some suggested communism was at play and others traded the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to support their stance.

Members of the House Education Committee voted along party lines to pass the measure out, with 12 Republican lawmakers in favor and two Democrats voting against. It moves next to the full House for consideration.

HB261 would reframe diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, offices at the state’s eight public colleges and universities — as well as at public K-12 schools and in any government institution within Utah. Particularly in higher education, the bill prohibits offices from engaging in “differential treatment” or preference based on race or gender. Those programs or efforts would be required to shift to more generalized “student success and support” centers that would help students from all backgrounds.

It’s unclear how far that reaches. Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, who is also a member of the committee who voted in favor of her own bill, said during the hearing Wednesday: “I don’t think it’s going to have as big of an impact as you might think.”

She then stated that it wouldn’t close cultural centers or defund scholarships, even though the language of the bill does appear to specifically target those. Hall said the point is to look “at everyone, not just outward characteristics” on an individual student level.

She presented the bill alongside James Evans, the former Utah GOP chairman. Evans, who is Black, also added that colleges “can still have Black and Hispanic student centers” and “can still have underrepresented groups.”

“DEI can continue with modifications,” he said.

The bill, though, does explicitly ban schools from having any offices that use any of the terms “diversity, equity or inclusion” in their titles. And the legislative fiscal analyst calculated $10.4 million spent on higher education positions that would be considered DEI — out of $2.8 billion total appropriated annually by the Legislature to colleges. That makes it 0.37% of that allocation, and an even smaller fraction of a school’s operating costs. Meanwhile Utah colleges and universities have said the total is $3.2 million.

When pressed by the Democrats on the committee about what offices it specifically includes and for data that showed why it was needed, Hall did not provide any specific examples.

“What’s really concerning for me with this bill is I’m a product of diversity, equity and inclusion as a university college student who was raised by my grandparents,” said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who talked about the support she found while in college at her school’s Center for Ethnic Student Affairs after experiencing discrimination from both professors and classmates.

“There’s no data to back up that diversity, equity and inclusion is being divisive,” she added. “Just because I have a different opinion doesn’t mean I’m divisive.”

Several members of the public also questioned the ambiguity of the measure.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) People listen as HB261 is heard in committee during the 2024 legislative session at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

“DEI has come to mean differential treatment in some cases,” Hall said instead. “And we want everyone to get the support they need no matter what.”

The bill additionally would ban public colleges, K-12 schools and government offices from asking job applicants for a statement about their beliefs on diversity or inclusion and could lose state funding for violating that. And schools would be required to eliminate any training on “discriminatory practices” while replacing that with instruction on free speech from all viewpoints.

There are exceptions in the bill for federal requirements and grants around diversity.

Speaking against the bill

The committee room at the Capitol for Wednesday’s meeting was packed wall-to-wall with more than 100 people, with more filed into an overflow room nearby and others joining the hearing online. In total, 38 individuals spoke about the bill, with 21 against lining up to give voice to their concerns.

Leila Noghrehchi, now a medical resident at the University of Utah, identified herself as a first-generation college student and the daughter of immigrants. When she did her undergraduate and graduate studies, she said, “DEI created a safe space for me to learn and reach my full potential — something that’s very difficult to do when you don’t know what that looks like.”

Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, who helped found the Black Menaces group at Brigham Young University where he recently graduated, said he’s experienced racism in higher education firsthand and has tried to document the issues of discrimination in Utah’s schools through social media posts.

“We cannot go backward. If you’re scared of DEI and want to abolish it,” he said, it’s because white people are realizing the power of disadvantaged communities. “That fear is not mine, it’s yours.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, one of the founders of the Black Menaces, speaks during public comment as HB261 is heard in committee during the 2024 legislative session at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

Stewart-Johnson said King’s dream was not to be judged by the color of his skin but by the content of his character — but he said that hasn’t been realized yet. Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP branch in Salt Lake City, echoed that thought, as well. And Darlene McDonald, director of the 1Utah Project, said it’s ironic that the push to eliminate DEI comes on the same week as celebrations to commemorate King’s work.

McDonald questioned why there isn’t a bill to help students of color after the racism in Utah schools that’s been documented by the U.S. Department of Justice, particularly in Davis School District.

Wagma Mohmand, a second-generation Afghan American and graduate of the University of Utah, added: “Racism against people of color like myself is more alive than ever. I experience it every day.”

She said she feels HB261 is discriminatory and ignores the realities of individuals of color, those with disabilities, those living in poverty and others who may face disadvantages. One parent spoke about concern for his transgender son and fear that he might be discriminated against after the bill takes effect. A single mom said she relies on institutional supports for nontraditional students like her.

Hoang Nguyen, the founder of several local businesses here, said her family sought refuge in Utah from Vietnam, and she went to elementary school not knowing English when she first arrived. She said DEI helped level the playing field and gave her opportunities to later contribute to the state.

Several pointed out that the majority of the House Education Committee was white, with Romero being the only person of color.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, listens as HB261 is heard in committee during the 2024 legislative session at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

Those in favor

Those in support of the bill said they feel the measure stops discrimination by not singling out an individual based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion — and instead treats everyone the same.

“The DEI movement does the exact opposite of what Martin Luther King wanted,” said Whit Cook, the legislative director for the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, who is white.

Cari Bartholomew, who identified as biracial and a member of both Utah Parents United and Path Forward Utah, said she feels it’s “insulting” to offer additional services to individuals of color because it suggests they’re inferior.

“It is a disservice to look at an African American and say because you’re African American, you need these things,” she said.

Ronald Williams, a Black pastor in Utah, said he didn’t have DEI programs when he was growing up and in school. He feels they “over protect” students and ultimately end up stunting their growth to the point that they don’t learn about resilience and overcoming adversity or fear.

One white woman said that white people also face challenges, and it’s impossible to know a person’s circumstances solely by looking at them. Alvin Guo, a BYU student who defected from China, said he finds DEI “extremely dangerous” and akin to communist policies in his home country. A Polynesian immigrant said her parents worked to teach others about their culture but didn’t expect special treatment.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alvin Guo, a student at BYU, speaks during public comment as HB261 is heard in committee during the 2024 legislative session at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

Annie Massey, a parent, said she believes HB261 is needed because schools have gone astray in teaching kids about race. When she was a kid, she said, she learned about Christopher Columbus as an explorer. Her three kids, she said, have been told he’s racist.

“That’s a very, very different topic that harms kids,” she said. “When I see DEI and certain discriminatory practices in offices in action, they actually hurt and are in opposition to the Constitution, to liberty, to parents’ rights, to due process, to equal protection of the law.”

Marci Campbell, who is white and has been teaching in higher education in Utah for 15 years, said diversity efforts in higher education have led to unfair hires. She said the department heads at the previous school she worked for told her to specifically hire minorities, and they were “awarded more points” in job applications for their backgrounds instead of their abilities.

The Republican lawmakers on the committee agreed with those in favor of the bill. Some acknowledged that more work needs to be done in the state to address racism — with one citing the Ten Commandments and suggesting all residents should be more “Christ-like” — but they said DEI isn’t working to solve the problem.

“It’s not about money,” said Rep. Joseph Elison, R-Toquerville, who brought up the religious references. “It’s not about budgets. This is to enact a law to protect people and allow everybody equal opportunity.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Joseph Elison, R-Toquerville, speaks as HB261 is heard in committee during the 2024 legislative session at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.