USA: From slavery to socialism, new legislation restricts what teachers can discuss

Age of ignorance?

Across the U.S., educators are being censored for broaching controversial topics. Since January 2021, researcher Jeffrey Sachs says, 35 states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach with regard to race, American history, politics, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sachs has been tracking this legislation for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. He says the recent flurry of legislation has created a “minefield” for educators trying to figure out how to teach topics such as slavery, Jim Crow laws or the Holocaust. One proposed law in South Carolina, for instance, prohibits teachers from discussing any topic that creates “discomfort, guilt or anguish” on the basis of political belief.

“That means that a teacher would have to be very, very careful about how they discuss something like, let’s say, fascism or racism or antisemitism,” Sachs says. “These are political beliefs, and it means that teachers are going to have to second-guess whether they can describe that political belief in as forthright and honest a way as we wish for fear of falling afoul of this bill.”

Critical race theory, an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in American institutions, has inspired a backlash in conservative circles across the United States. In one of his first acts in office, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor of Virginia, established a hotline to allow parents or members of the community to report critical race theory in the classroom. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a conservative mom’s group is offering a $500 bounty to catch teachers who break a state law prohibiting certain teachings about racism and sexism.

“I think it must be a very terrifying time to be an educator at any level in higher ed or in K-12,” Sachs says.

“You have, unfortunately, the kinds of daily stressors that we’ve all become used to because of COVID,” he says. “And now on top of that, these educators are trying to negotiate outraged parents and media pundits. … When you listen to what educators are saying, they’re burned out, and many of them, I think, will head for the exits.”

Interview highlights

On how some of the proposed bills would be impossible to comply with

Some of the bills — I would say many now — include a provision that says something to the effect of: Teachers cannot be compelled to discuss a controversial contemporary issue, but if they do, they must do so evenhandedly and without any kind of favoritism. However, many of those same bills also would require teachers to denounce, in the strongest possible terms, ideas like Marxism or socialism.

For instance, a bill in Indiana that is currently under consideration would require, among other things, that in the run-up to any general election in the state, students must be taught “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded.” And it goes on to say as such, “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are detrimental to the people of the United States.”

The issue there, among many others, is that it’s a bill requiring students to be exposed to this litany of claims about different ideologies. And it also requires that in doing so, teachers cannot show favoritism or bias in any one direction. In other words, it’s a bill that can’t possibly actually work. Teachers are being pulled in two different directions, and the consequence is going to be a kind of self-censorship.

Another Indiana bill … prohibits teachers from including in their class any “anti-American ideologies.” Now that term is never defined, and again, it’s not that teachers can’t endorse or promote anti-American ideologies — they’re just simply forbidden from even discussing them.

On bills that address sexuality, gender and LGBTQ issues

It differs bill to bill. But again, many do include language prohibiting teachers from discussing concepts like gender fluidity. It prohibits them from discussing “nontraditional gender identities” and in many cases forbid[s] teachers from discussing controversial events that would presumably include, in many cases, ones like gay marriage or LGBTQ rights.

We see as well many bills requiring teachers to report to parents if their children are asking questions about their gender identity, and in many cases as well — for instance, in a Florida bill — that prohibit teachers from “encouraging any conversation about sex and sexuality.”

So it really puts teachers in an impossible situation. In a contemporary high school or middle school, even earlier in elementary school, these sorts of topics arise. And in particular, it would put LGBTQ teachers in a really difficult situation where they’re forced, essentially, to disguise their identity or the status of their relationships in order to fend off running afoul of these bills.

On how these laws are similar to what’s going on in authoritarian countries

It often gets dismissively described as “woke ideas,” and more broadly, I think we would just describe these ideas that we’re talking about as socially liberal ideas. And unfortunately, what we’re seeing is in countries like Russia, China, in Turkey, in Hungary, we are seeing these regimes targeting educational institutions and other sites of cultural production like museums or the media, [as] an attempt to drive these ideas out — to signal that to be a “real” Russian or to be a “true” Hungarian, one must be straight, one must be socially conservative. These efforts underway in these regimes, that are either authoritarian or unfortunately trending in that direction, all signal the kind of political energy that leaders believe they can get by attacking these ideas.

On a new law that addresses the concept of systemic racism

There’s a law currently on the books in North Dakota that was passed last November after just five days of consideration that has me up at night. This is a law that attempts to prohibit critical race theory in K-12 schools, and I just want to reemphasize here this is not a law that prohibits people from endorsing or promoting critical race theory. It’s a law that forbids them from even including critical race theory in the classroom. And the way that that law defines critical race theory is what has me so concerned: … “critical race theory, which is defined as the theory that racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.” In other words, the law now is saying that whenever a teacher talks about racism, they may only describe it as a product of an individual’s own biases or prejudices. They cannot describe it — even when the facts command them to — as something more endemic or embedded within American society. It’s a way essentially of preventing teachers, I think, from being honest about a lot of the uglier sides of American history and contemporary society.

Whenever you discuss slavery, your teacher would have to essentially say, “These slaveholders were racist.” The system that they were in, the laws that supported them, the economy that made that business profitable, you’d have to separate those institutional features and describe slavery purely as a product of individual bias, which does violence to the topic. It fails to educate students, and I think might discourage students from thinking critically about contemporary institutions and identifying whether or not they also might be guilty of systemic racism.

On how the idea for these restrictive teaching bills first came about

The origins here … go back to that summer of 2020. There’s a researcher there named Christopher Rufo, who was then with the Discovery Institute in Seattle. This is in a conservative educational institute centered around the promotion of intelligent design. And Christopher Rufo wrote a series of articles for an online website called City Journal. And in his City Journal articles, he detailed what he described as indoctrination in K-12 schools or in employee training programs in businesses or state agencies, programs that he said were training people to become critical race theorists.

Those articles caught the attention of Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, and Rufo appeared on his program in early September of 2020. The very next day, he received a phone call from Mark Meadows, then chief of staff for the Trump administration. Apparently, Trump had watched the program that evening. He’d seen what Rufo had to say, and within a matter of days, Rufo was in conversation with the Trump administration on some sort of legislative or executive response. The product of that conversation was Trump’s executive order in late September, where he prohibited any state agency from discussing certain ideas as part of employee training or [training for] a state contractor that wishes to do business with the federal government.

Source: From slavery to socialism, new legislation restricts what teachers can discuss

If There Is a Free-Speech ‘Crisis’ on Campus, PEN America Says, Lawmakers Are Making It Worse

Good balanced commentary:

Free speech is being tested on college campuses by rising numbers of hate crimes and deepening racial tensions, according to a report released today by PEN America, a human-rights association of writers and editors. But the Trump administration’s warnings of a “crisis” overstate the problem, it says, and risk further polarizing colleges.

The 100-page report, “Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America,” finds that threats to speech are coming from both the right and the left. Lawmakers at state and federal levels are, in many cases, making the problem worse by raising “politicized and one-sided alarms over the state of free speech” on campuses, it says.

The association examined 100 speech-related controversies that have broken out in recent years. Often, the authors found, the battles reflected tensions between free speech and the goals of equality and inclusion.

The campus confrontations grabbed the biggest headlines in 2017, “but the intermittent earthquakes of the past few years have been replaced by a near constant — if less sensational — rumble” as colleges work to fend crises off before they erupt, the report says.

Its release comes less than two weeks after President Trump’s executive order threatening to cut off federal research money to colleges that fail to uphold free speech.

Over the weekend, a lawyer with the Department of Justice, speaking at a Harvard Law School symposium, doubled down on that threat.

Jesse Panuccio, principal deputy associate attorney general, warned of a “free-speech crisis” on college campuses, citing specific examples of speech codes, free-speech zones, and “heckler’s vetoes” that he considers First Amendment violations.

“The very core of university life — open debate among scholars and students — is under attack,” he concluded.

The Trump administration has filed statements of interest in five free-speech-related lawsuits, against the University of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles Pierce College, Georgia Gwinnett College, the University of Michigan, and the University of Iowa. Panuccio warned that more challenges would be coming.

Efforts to legislate free-speech protection represent to many an unwelcome intrusion into colleges’ affairs. But campuses aren’t the only places where these battles are being waged.

“Far from taking place in isolation behind ivy-covered walls, today’s campus free-speech controversies are inextricable from the social and political upheaval of this historical moment,” PEN America’s chief executive officer, Suzanne Nossel, said in a statement accompanying the report.

“While we have never thought that there was a crisis per se when it comes to campus speech, there are legitimate concerns about ideas and viewpoints that have become hard to voice amid a climate of intense ideological rancor,” she wrote. “While President Trump has spotlighted threats to speech emanating from the left, our analysis reveals that intolerance of opposing views cuts across the political spectrum.”

The national debate over free speech on campus has become, in the Trump era, “a deeply partisan feud, with each side trying to catch the other in transgressive acts that can be amplified to rile up the faithful,” the report says.

One such skirmish broke out last week, when safety concerns prompted Beloit College to cancel a lecture by Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, a private security company whose employees were implicated in the 2007 deaths of Iraqi civilians.

The event, hosted by the campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group, was called off after protesters pounded on drums and piled chairs onto the stage where Prince was to speak.

Prince, who is the brother of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, suggested to the Beloit Daily News that a lawsuit may be coming. “It’s sad the president and the administration of this college lacked the moral courage to enforce free speech and to defend free speech,” he said. “Fortunately, President Trump will defend free speech, and I think the college will be hearing from the court soon on this, because enough is enough.”

Beloit released a statement saying that it had acted out of concern for student safety, and that the protesters’ actions jeopardized the college’s commitment to open dialogue. “Tonight’s events fell unacceptably short of this core principle, and we condemn the behavior of those who disrupted the event,” it said. “The college will begin an investigation immediately.”

The college also posted an explanation of why it had allowed Prince to speak but then canceled the lecture.

Nossel said it was unfortunate that Beloit couldn’t find a way to allow Prince to talk by changing the venue or finding some other nonviolent way to keep protesters from interfering. “While students were absolutely within their rights to object to Prince and his message, they should have done so without impairing his free-speech rights and those of those who chose to listen to him,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Free Speech as ‘the Bedrock’

PEN America expressed worry about a tendency among some students to view free-speech protections as a cover for bigotry. Given the natural outrage some feel when a white supremacist or someone they consider a war criminal is allowed to speak on campus, the group says, it is important to ensure that students appreciate the importance of free speech “as the bedrock of an open, democratic, and equitable society.”

Leading up to the report’s release, the researchers invited groups of students, faculty members, administrators, and others for face-to-face discussions on four campuses that have been flashpoints for free-speech controversies: the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia, Middlebury College, and the University of Maryland at College Park.

Among the key conclusions they came away with:

Colleges are seeing more incidents of hateful expression and intimidation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the number of hate groups nationwide grew from 917 in 2016 to 1,020 in 2018, the report notes. College administrators are struggling to respond in ways that balance the goals of free speech and inclusion.

Faculty members are the targets of outrage campaigns from both left and right, causing serious threats to academic freedom.

The Justice Department is raising politicized alarms over the state of free speech. Similar one-sided attacks are happening at the state level as lawmakers seek to legislate free-speech protections.

Even Trump has acknowledged that statements by officials of his own administration about a free-speech crisis are “overblown.”

Professional provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer have faded from the scene, but they’ve left an impact on the campuses they visited. Along with more-robust security measures, colleges have had to overhaul how they communicate with students before, during, and after a free-speech controversy.

The PEN America report includes updated guidelines for students, faculty members, and administrators on how to navigate campus controversies in ways that protect free speech while making diverse students feel welcome and supported.

When someone has been offended by a racist remark or sign, the immediate aftermath might not be the best time for a lecture about free speech, the group says. Administrators should condemn hate speech and reach out to those who are hurt by it. They should also make sure that the rights of both speakers and protesters are protected.

The report mentions a bridge that crosses the Mississippi River to link two sides of the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus. Every fall, students paint the panels of the pedestrian walkway to showcase their clubs. When College Republicans in 2016 wrote “Build the Wall,” the message was soon graffitied over by “Stop White Supremacy.” Protests erupted over what should be allowed as free speech or condemned as hate speech.

“The controversy over one bridge is instructive,” the report says, “because it highlights how campuses have become a proxy for national political and social conflicts writ large in which speech has taken on great significance, and in which neither side is willing to cede an inch — or a mural — to the other.”

Source: https://www.chronicle.com/article/If-There-Is-a-Free-Speech/246031?cid=wcontentlist_hp_latest