Bill allowing Utah parents to sue teachers and schools significantly watered down

SB157 could prevent elected officials from being disciplined for making controversial public statements.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, during Senate floor time at the Legislative Session, Jan. 25, 2022.

The sponsor of a bill allowing parents to sue teachers or schools for infringing on their parental rights is backing off that controversial part of his proposal.

In the original version of SB157 from Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, parents would be the ultimate authority over the education their children received in public schools. The bill seemed to create a legal framework allowing parents to file suit and seek monetary damages if their rights as a parent were infringed upon. That included suing teachers or school boards, or even filing suit against the Legislature.

The substitute version which was made public Thursday afternoon, stripped out that part of the bill.

Johnson’s overhauled proposal now says parents are responsible for the education of their children, but the bill explains that parents will work through elected representatives to make sure their rights are respected and upheld.

A line in the bill states the freedom of speech of elected officials “may not be restricted or impaired” by the body of which that person is a member. That sentence appears to be in response to the Utah Board of Education taking disciplinary action against Natalie Cline. She was reprimanded by the Board last year for a social media post that was critical of LGBTQ students. That provision could give blanket immunity for elected officials to say any manner of controversial things without fear of reprisal.

The bill still asserts the federal government or any national organization has no authority over public education in Utah. The state also would have the authority to reject any attempt from outside of Utah to control public education in the state.

Johnson’s proposal also gives parents the right to withdraw or have their children opt-out of any lessons or material they find objectionable without retaliation.

A spokesperson for Johnson said the changes were made as a result of feedback from constituents.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee. Johnson is the chair of that committee and controls the agenda, so it’s a good bet his proposal will get a hearing next week.