If you’re concerned that someone has authoritarian tendencies, the worst thing you can do is treat them like they have the power to rewrite the law. Yet that’s what many media outlets did in reporting on Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the Obama administration’s guidance to schools on the rights of transgender students.
In various headlines (mostly gathered by the New Civil Rights Movement website—2/22/17), the Trump administration was said to “roll back” (Washington Post, 2/22/17), “rescind” (Huffington Post, 2/22/17), “withdraw” (CNN, 2/23/17; The Hill, 2/22/17), or “revoke” (Slate, 2/22/17) protection for transgender students.
The problem with this framing is that Trump does not have the power to unilaterally change what rights transgender students have. These rights derive from Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, that bars discrimination based on gender in publicly funded schools. It was a series of federal court rulings, not the Obama administration’s say-so, that found that protection against gender discrimination extends to trans people.
The Obama guidance to school administrators was about, among other things, how they should allow trans students to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Its withdrawal, New Civil Rights Movement‘s David Badash says, is “a wink and a nod,” a telegraphing that the Justice Department under Trump will not vigorously enforce Title IX, at least when it comes to transgender children.
As Lambda Legal, a leading defender of LGBTQ rights, said in a blog post (2/22/17), “Trump’s actions do not change the law itself—transgender students remain protected by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—but abandoning the guidance intentionally creates confusion about what federal law requires.”
Journalists should not contribute to that confusion.In an era where the White House is bent on taking away rights from vulnerable groups, journalists need to be very clear in explaining what rights we still have.