2022: The year of the thought police
For years, people on the right have complained about the supposed left-wing assault on free speech.
"We talk a lot on this show about the threat to free speech. It turns out it’s very real," Tucker Carlson said on his Fox News program on December 18, 2019. Carlson was upset because, on a previous show, he had claimed that immigrants were making America "poorer and dirtier." Many people, including those on the "left," found his comments offensive and racist. As a result, some of Carlson's advertisers decided they would not like to be associated with his show any longer.
Carlson said the "American left" will "scream 'racist!' on Twitter until everyone gets intimidated." What he's describing is not an attack on free speech or the First Amendment, but free speech itself. Carlson is free to go on his show and say that immigrants are making Americans "dirtier." Others are free to criticize Carlson's remarks as racist or decide they don't want to do business with him any longer. Critical tweets and the free market don't threaten anyone's First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment, which also applies to states, begins "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…" In other words, Carlson losing a few advertisers is not a threat to the First Amendment. No one tried to pass legislation prohibiting Carlson from being a bigot on air. But the government passing laws restricting what thoughts or ideas people can express is a direct attack on Constitutional rights.
Today, Republican state legislators are proposing legislation to restrict what teachers can say in their classrooms. This trend started in 2021 — ten such bills have already become law — but has dramatically accelerated in the first few weeks of this year. A new report by PEN America found that in the first three weeks of 2022 "71 bills have been introduced or prefiled in state legislatures across the country" to restrict the speech of teachers.
These bills were put together hastily and it shows. In Virginia, a Republican legislator introduced a bill requiring school boards to ensure students understand "the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass." (Lincoln actually debated Stephen Douglas, a very different person.) Other bills contain "contradictory language" or leave "important terms undefined." Nevertheless, 55% "include some kind of mandatory punishment for violators."
"This is about putting the fear of God into teachers and administrators,” Jeffrey Sachs, the author of the PEN America report, told columnist Greg Sargent. “Teachers are going to avoid discussing certain topics altogether — topics related to race, sex and American history that as a society we might want to discuss."
A particularly aggressive government effort to limit speech is underway in Florida, led by Governor Ron DeSantis (R). A bill championed by DeSantis prohibits any school or private business from engaging in instruction or training that makes anyone "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress" on account of their race.
Critics say the focus on white guilt precludes any candid discussion of American history. "This isn't even a ban on Critical Race Theory, this is a ban on Black history," State Senator Shevrin Jones (D) said. "They are talking about not wanting White people to feel uncomfortable? Let's talk about being uncomfortable. My ancestors were uncomfortable when they were stripped away from their children."
To wit, the bill explicitly requires teachers to lie to students. It requires teachers to define "American history…as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." At America's founding, of course, the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence were not universal. Black people, women, and other groups had few rights.
The Florida bill is a radical attack on free speech in schools and the private sector. But that hasn't stopped it from moving rapidly through the Republican-controlled legislature. Last week, just seven days after the bill was filed, it was approved by the Senate Education Committee.
Dozens of similar bills are on the march in state legislatures across the nation.
Missouri has 19 pending bills restricting free speech
Missouri currently has 19 bills seeking to restrict the speech of teachers and school administrators –– the most of any state, according to PEN America’s Educational Gag Order Index. So far, the bills that have gained the most traction are HB 1474 and HB 1995 –– two bills that call for the creation of a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”
HB 1474, sponsored by Rep. Nick Schroer (R), prohibits “any curriculum implementing critical race theory.” The bill misleadingly defines Critical Race Theory as anything that “identifies…groups of people, entities, or institutions in the United States as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed.” This definition is incorrect and illustrates “how sloppily” many of these types of bills are often written. As PEN America points out, this feature is becoming “increasingly common to 2022’s bills.”
Schroer’s bill also bans the use of the 1619 Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice curriculum, and other equity-focused programs. Notably, of the 19 bills introduced, at least five explicitly prohibit teaching the 1619 Project, a history of the nation which was produced by the New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize.
HB 1995 takes it a step further. Under the bill, parents can request a two-week notice whenever a teacher plans to discuss a “divisive or controversial topic that may conflict with a parent’s belief that all persons, regardless of race, ethnicity, color, national origin, or ancestry, should be treated equally.” Parents will also have the ability to sue schools and can be awarded up to $5,000 if they win.
Additionally, schools found in violation of the bill will be forced to pay a fine––80% of this fine will go towards a fund that provides tuition assistance for students to attend private schools.
Other bills that have been introduced in Missouri’s state legislature include one that requires teachers to “promote an overall positive” history of the United States and one that “prohibits teachers from advocating for or compelling students to adopt or affirm certain ideas related to race, sex, and related categories.” Another bill targets higher education and was introduced by a lawmaker who told Politico his priority this legislative session is to “shut down” Critical Race Theory in Missouri.
Legislators in Arizona propose amending state constitution to ban CRT
Three bills have been introduced in Arizona this year that would ban various discussions of race in schools. One of these bills, HCR 2001, otherwise known as the “Stop Critical Race Theory and Racial Discrimination in Schools and Other Public Institutions Act,” would amend the Constitution of Arizona to prohibit teachers and other school employees from “compel[ling] or requir[ing] any employee or student to adopt, affirm, endorse, adhere to or profess to” certain ideas about race.
The bill specifically bans instruction that could make students "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race, ethnicity, or sex.” The purpose of the bill states that, “Slavery, legal racial discrimination and racism are…inconsistent with the founding principles of the United States,” despite the fact that all three were written into the Constitution, as enacted by the founders.
The bill states that “racially discriminatory ideologies and practices such as that known as ‘critical race theory’ directly contradict the principles of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” The Fourteenth Amendment, however, requires equal treatment under the law. It does not ban ideologies or prohibit people from discussing racism and its root causes.
Another bill introduced in Arizona, HB2112, prohibits teachers from engaging in any instruction "that presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.” It's unclear what specific kind of instruction would violate the prohibition.
Nevertheless, teachers who violate the ban would be “subject to disciplinary action, including the suspension or revocation of the teacher’s certificate, as the state board deems appropriate.” Violations would also allow the state Attorney General to “initiate a suit in the Superior Court” along with “a civil penalty not to exceed $5,000 per school district, charter school or state agency where the violation occurs.”