As part of our Misinformation Watch blog series, we’re revisiting instances when the media or the political left or right advanced misinformation in 2022. And conversation around Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay law” by critics, unfortunately fueled some misleading narratives.
So-called “woke” politics have characterized the ongoing culture war in the United States for the last few years, and in the summer of 2022, Florida and its education systems were on the front lines.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) pledged to “fight the woke in the legislature…in the schools…in the corporations…Florida is where woke goes to die.” His most public and controversial act to advance this goal was the passing of the Parental Rights in Education Act, which was popularly nicknamed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay law.”
There has been a lot of discussion about the implications of this law, but some media coverage of the law has actually been misleading about what it says and does, creating misinformation and fueling skewed narratives that manipulate the public.
Table of Contents
- Does the law ban the word “gay” in schools?
- What does the law say?
- How opponents see the law
- How supporters see the law
- Misinformation and media bias in coverage of the law
Early on, activists from Equality Florida opposed to the bill nicknamed it the “Don’t Say Gay bill,” which quickly stuck. Many media outlets embraced opponents’ branding exclusively in coverage and headlines relating to the law, which gives the impression the bill bans use of the word “gay.” Some celebrities implied this as well, such as Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall at the Oscars, actor Mark Hamill (who tweeted the word “gay” dozens of times), and Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live, who stated “that Ron DeSantis has taken a stand and said ‘No, you cannot say gay in school anymore’...”
Despite the law’s ambiguity, the implication that the law bans usage of the word “gay” is false.
The word “gay” is not used in the text of the law once. Instead, much of the controversy arises from this clause in the law:
Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age- appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.
People are entitled to their views on this legislation, but it certainly does not explicitly prevent the word “gay” from being used, as some have claimed or implied.
According to the law itself, and fact checkers on both sides of the aisle, the law does not explicitly prevent students or teachers from saying “gay.” To some, the media’s repetition of this phrase to name the bill could be seen as an example of misinformation.
The most criticized portion of the law is one that requires school boards to “adopt procedures” aimed at, as the law’s preamble states, “prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.” “Certain grade levels” are later defined as kindergarten through third grade.
In practice, this means that any instruction regarding sexual orientation (which gender someone is attracted to), along with any discussion about gender identity (including the idea that there are more than two genders, that transgender people switch genders, and that gender and sex are separate things), is outlawed in K-3 classrooms.
This is broad criteria, and critics argue this might lead teachers to self-censor discussion of matters that are actually allowed due to fear of a lawsuit or complaints from parents. They also argue that not being able to discuss LGBTQ+ issues in schools will marginalize LGBTQ+ students and negatively impact their mental health.
The law’s supporters see it as a positive component of the law, arguing that schools are not a place for any of this conversation, especially for the K-3 age group.
Some believe K-3 children are simply too young to understand these sorts of issues. Others disagree with the concept of gender identity as a whole, and do not want their children led to believe that there are more than two genders.
Another section in the law authorizes “a parent to bring an action against a school district to obtain a declaratory judgment that a school district procedure or practice violates certain provisions of law.”
Critics of the law say this will unfairly place teachers in the scope of litigation and allow parents too much oversight over what goes on in the classroom. Meanwhile, supporters celebrate this aspect of the law on the grounds that it gives parents more say in their children's education.
Critics claim the law will stifle conversation about LGBTQ+ issues, thus marginalizing LGBTQ+ youths and fueling an increase in mental health problems that are already prevalent within that community.
They argue the language of the law is vague, and feel as though this ambiguity can be manipulated to discriminate against and further stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community. They argue that some LGBTQ+ students do not feel comfortable discussing such issues at home with parents, and thus the safe space of school is necessary.
Specific concerns have been raised over the vague parental notification aspect of the law, with some opponents worrying this may lead to LGBTQ+ students being “outed” to their parents without their consent.
Prominent voices on the left have spoken out about the law.
The White House under the Biden Administration denounced the law and expressed concerns. One tweet from the White House read that Florida’s legislation is “designed to attack LGBTQI+ kids.” President Biden stated on the POTUS Twitter account, “I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful law — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are.”
Florida State Senator Shevrin Jones, the first openly gay state senator in the state of Florida, spoke on the law on the Senate floor. “To those who think you can legislate gay people away, I’m sorry. You cannot,” he said. “I think you should legislate to protect them.”
Some left-leaning news sources have similarly denounced the law.
Vox (Left bias) published an article titled, “The Constitutional Problem with Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law,” in which the “insidiousness of Florida’s law” is discussed. Vox voices concerns over the ambiguity of the law, pointing out that, “The law, however, does not define key terms like ‘age appropriate’ or ‘developmentally appropriate.’ It doesn’t even define the term ‘classroom instruction.’” Furthermore, Vox says, “Teachers who won’t understand how to comply with the new law are likely to overcensor their speech in order to protect themselves from being accused of violating the law.”
One article from the New Yorker (Left bias) spoke on how the law was part of a larger political strategy and goal for DeSantis. In discussing his strategy, the article notes, “[DeSantis] and his allies described their political opponents not just as leftists, but as ‘groomers’—a watchword deployed to suggest that the Democratic Party is somehow complicit in pedophilia…Americans haven’t suddenly become traditionalists; DeSantis has simply seized a political opportunity. The school issues have solidified his standing with socially conservative voters, and elevated him as the main alternative to Trump.”
TIME (Lean Left bias) also published an article titled “Florida Just Passed the "Don't Say Gay" law. Here’s What It Means for Kids.” The article notably uses opponents’ terminology to name the law, instead of its actual name, representing a word choice bias. The article discusses the possible broader implications of the legislation, focusing on the concerns of many critics.
Companies and Groups
The law has a number of opponents across other sectors as well.
The Walt Disney Company, which has strong ties to Florida (including a recent plan to relocate employees there) spoke out against the law in a statement reading, “Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law.” This statement came after weeks of activist pressure. The company went further in supporting removal of the law, voicing, “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.”
Other companies followed suit. Starbucks, Pinterest, Nordstrom, and Target all signed a petition against what they described as “anti-LGBTQ+ legislation,” alongside 45 other companies.
The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, issued a statement condemning the law. Sam Ames, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs, expressed, “This law will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face.”
Resistance has also heated up from teachers and students themselves, with many Florida students engaging in walkouts and a protest at the State Capitol. CBS News covered the way teachers have spoken out against the law, specifically Kentucky's 2022 Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, who wrote an open letter condemning the law, signed by over 200 teachers who had been honored as Teacher of the Year in their respective states.
Overall, opponents were looking beyond the plain language of the law itself and were more concerned with how its interpretation and implementation may impact the LGBTQ+ community and school environments as a whole.
Some supporters of the law believe that parents have the right to choose when and how to broach these subjects with their children.
Many of these individuals see conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation in a classroom setting as potential indoctrination, and believe that this discussion does not belong in K-3 classrooms.
Many supporters see the law as a way to protect children from the “left’s inappropriate agenda” (RNC chair Ronna McDaniel writing for Fox News), and to support parental rights, while prohibiting discussion of what they see as inappropriate topics in schools.
One of the first things Ron DeSantis said when he won the governor’s election in 2018 was that “we choose education over indoctrination.” To DeSantis and many of his supporters, this law is an extension of that promise and a guarantee to parents that their children will not receive information about sexual orientation and gender identity that parents deem harmful or inappropriate.
Many on the right object to teaching young children about transgenderism and gender dysphoria, arguing doing so can confuse children or groom them into accepting ideas about gender, sexuality, and even politics that will confuse them, harm them, or lead them to mental health issues and/or to pursue irreversible gender-change surgical and hormonal procedures. They argue that increased exposure to LGBTQ+ ideas makes children more likely to identify as LGBTQ when they otherwise wouldn’t have, and possibly even reject their families and parental guidance on issues of gender and sexuality.
DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw alluded to this when she tweeted, “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill.”
Many Republicans have voiced support for the bill, as has former Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who said that “parents should raise their kids, not the government.”
Commentator David Harsanyi (Right bias) wrote, “As it stands, any Florida parents interested in teaching their six-year-olds that they’re imbued with a metaphysical power to dismiss objective reality and biology are free to do so. Knock yourself out. Parents whose values don’t comport with that worldview, however, are now on equal footing. No one, obviously, is worried that kids are going to have to sit through a lecture on the benefits of traditional marriage during nap time.”
Harsanyi continued, “There’s a good reason why nearly every major media outlet and the entire left-wing punditry keep referring to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — rather than, say, the “Don’t Teach Kindergartners about Gender Dysphoria” bill. Any honest debate on the matter would almost surely be a political loser for Democrats.”
In addition, some right-rated outlets have pushed back against critics’ nickname for the law, pointing out that the law does not prevent teachers from saying the word gay. One Fox News (Right bias) article deemed such claims as “misleading.” Another National Review (Right bias) article called the nickname “deeply dishonest.”
Groups and Parents
David Leatherwood, president of the Log Cabin Republicans Tampa Bay chapter, said he does not, “as a gay man, believe it is the government’s job to use the public education system to teach kindergarteners about sex—I think it’s really wrong, actually. And I think it’s part of a larger agenda to push sexuality onto our children.”
Moms4Liberty, a group “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government,” celebrated the bill as a restoration of “the balance of power back to parents in our schools.” The group’s founder also criticized Disney’s pushback of the bill, and said,“It seems like Disney is OK with sexualizing our children.”
Parents’ objections to the bill have been much more of a focus from right-rated news sources than left-rated news sources.
The media coverage of the law has been filled with slant and bias by omission, with some media outlets primarily highlighting voices against the law, and others highlighting only voices in favor.
In addition, some media outlets have only called the bill by the nickname given to it by opponents, or have not given details about what the law actually says, relying only on speculation to describe its impact.
With so much media bias around the law, reading only limited coverage of this issue can prevent readers from getting the full story.
The law’s stated purpose is to give parents more control over what their children can learn in school, particularly regarding topics surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity.
Polling has shown agreement across the aisle regarding multiple aspects of the law, a scantily mentioned fact by right-rated or left-rated coverage of the law. A poll found that 52% of Floridian Democrats are somewhat or definitely opposed to teaching about sexual orientation in grades K-3.
Whichever side you fall on, it is important to dissect the content of controversial laws before coming to conclusions about their goals or consequences.
Calling it the “Don’t Say Gay law” could be seen as misinformation because the law doesn’t explicitly outlaw the word “gay.” This framing also constitutes multiple types of media bias, including sensationalism and slant.
RELATED: How to Spot 16 Types of Media Bias
On the other side, suggesting that the bill won’t have a negative effect on the LGBTQ+ community is a purely subjective evaluation, and any furthering of that view as if it were fact could be seen as misinformation.
Education reflects the fierce culture war in this nation. To foster civilized, productive conversation about improving educational outcomes for students, media outlets should avoid the type of divisive coverage and commentary perpetuated surrounding the Parental Rights in Education Act, and instead focus on the content of the law and a wide range of perspectives about it from students, parents, and teachers.
Only then will readers get the full picture and decide for themselves how they feel about the issue.
Ethan Horowitz is an AllSides News Assistant. He has a Lean Right bias.
Rose Mercer is a former AllSides Content Intern. She has a Lean Left bias.
This blog was reviewed and edited by Henry A. Brechter, Managing Editor (Center bias), Joseph Ratliff, News Editor (Lean Left bias), and Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings (Lean Right).