JThe US national anthem may portray the country as the ‘Land of the Free’, but the legitimacy of that statement is increasingly being tested in 2022, as conservatives have launched a concerted campaign to prevent the presentation of ideas and books to schoolchildren.
Republicans in several states have launched efforts to ban books relating to race and LGBTQ+ issues in classrooms, while some legislatures are pushing to introduce laws that would ban teachers from discussing homosexuality. Other states have already banned any discussion of the modern impact of historic racism in the United States.
It is a situation that has no equivalent in recent American history. And in an interview with the Guardian, Stephanie Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a non-profit organization that works to protect free speech in the United States, said education censorship efforts, especially , were part of a broader attempt by the Conservatives. to influence society.
“There have been battles and debates that have erupted from time to time, but the ferocity of this wave of education gag orders affecting program and book bans is unprecedented,” Nossel said.
“We are in this acute moment of historically unprecedented polarization in our country and there is a very powerful and intense struggle going on about what the future of our society looks like,” Nossel said.
There are few signs that American polarization will lessen anytime soon. Democratic and Republican politicians are deeply divided on issues of education, social welfare, women’s rights and pandemic recovery, while only a fifth of Republicans believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected, despite a lack of evidence on widespread electoral fraud.
In January, an NBC News poll found that 70% of Americans believe the country has become so polarized that it can no longer solve the major issues facing the country.
“Our people are changing. We’re becoming an increasingly pluralistic society, in so many different dimensions and there’s this fierce backlash trying to pull it the other way, with the idea that we’re somehow restoring a great path that’s been lost .
“We see it in efforts to restrict the franchise across the country and give legislatures the power to overrule the will of an increasingly diverse population heading to the polls.”
This crusade is bleeding more and more into education. Last year, PEN America counted 155 bills introduced in 38 states that would censor what teachers can say or teach in classrooms. In 2022, there was a “sharp increase” in the introduction of what PEN America calls “gag orders”, the organization said.
In Florida, a ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which would ban discussions of sexuality and gender identity in schools, was passed by the state Senate Education Committee on February 8. and was endorsed by Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida. The bill, which must pass the entire Florida Senate and House before becoming law, would allow parents to sue school boards if they believe the policies violate the law.
A bill introduced in the Kansas House on Feb. 9 would change the state’s obscenity law, making it a Class B misdemeanor for a teacher to use any material depicting “homosexuality” in a classroom. class, while pending legislation in Arizona would allow parents to sue teachers. and school districts for alleged violations of parental rights.
In schools, these laws serve to “hinder our educators and intimidate them in frightening ways,” Nossel said.
“It puts librarians, teachers, principals in a position where they have to be afraid that if they come up with certain ideas, or even if a student comes up with certain ideas, and it gets picked up as a class discussion, they may be subject to disciplinary measures or penalties or fines.
While classroom censorship has become a battleground for conservatives, there is little evidence that a majority of parents are demanding more classroom censorship or demanding more influence over what their children can read or learn.
A CNN poll in early February found that only 12% of Americans believe parents “should have the most influence over what library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught.”
“I think it’s a fabricated problem, to be honest. There aren’t many parents who rummage through their child’s backpack in horror to find, you know, a copy of Art Spiegelman’s Maus,” Nossel said.
“I think some activists have realized that by pointing out, whether it’s profanity or controversial ideas in some of these books, they can activate a sense of frustration that parents have about a whole range of problems.”
These issues include the debate over the wearing of masks in schools and mixed emotions over how long school closures will last in the age of the pandemic.
But censorship has also been encouraged by conservative groups linked to deep-pocketed right-wing donors. Groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education have been instrumental in book ban attempts in the United States, often portraying themselves as small “grassroots” efforts when in fact they have ties. with prominent and wealthy Republicans.
Existing tensions, Nossel said, have “been used to fuel this ideological debate about the books and inflame it.”
“We used to talk about a wallet problem here in the United States, a problem that affects people’s wallets.
“It’s a problem that affects the backpack. It affects something that is at home, that is very personal and close to home. And so, I think the organizers and the activists feel that they have managed to strike a nerve with this, even though the context of parental concern over what is read and taught in schools is relatively low.
There may not be a recent parallel for the scale of conservative repression.
Nossel, whose book Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All serves as a guide to protecting and promoting free speech, said the clearest similarity to the potential prosecution of teachers dates back nearly 100 years, in the Scopes trial, involving Tennessee science professor John Scopes.
In 1925, Scopes was charged with violating Tennessee’s recently passed Butler Act, which prohibited teaching the theory of evolution in public schools. He was found guilty and fined $100, although the verdict was later overturned. After the lawsuit, Mississippi passed a similar law, and that same year Texas banned the theory of evolution from textbooks.
More recent parallels can be found in the policing of books and ideas in the Soviet Union, and Russia introduced a “gay propaganda” law in 2013 that effectively made it illegal to equate heterosexual and homosexual relationships. China has long banned the book Tombstone, Yang Jishen’s account of the Great Chinese Famine, which casts a negative light on the country’s communist rulers.
Nossel said it would be going too far to equate the situation in the United States directly with these countries – “We are a democracy here, and that is extremely important”, she said – but she warned that there was “an echo in the tactics”.
“These situations, obviously, were much, much more serious. But I think we have to be on our toes,” Nossel said.
“Many of us have been surprised at what we have seen in this country over the past few years. So we can’t be too optimistic that it’s just kind of a phase and a passing trend.