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Congressmen Criticize State Laws Censoring Education on Controversial Issues

May 19, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Congressmen Criticize State Laws Censoring Education on Controversial Issues
Rep. Jamie Raskin

WASHINGTON — Teachers and students warned a congressional panel Thursday that recent state laws clamping down on politically volatile instruction in schools are likely to backfire by breeding intolerance.

Seventeen states passed laws in the past two years intended to protect children from offensive sexual or racial material.

The state legislators claim good intentions but teachers and students testifying before a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee said the laws encourage sexism, racism and prejudice toward gay persons.

Witnesses before the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties also said the state laws violate their First Amendment rights of free speech.

“These laws are being used to undermine public faith in public schools,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the subcommittee.

Members of Congress have not yet introduced a bill that would ban the state censorship in education laws but acknowledge they are considering federal action to override them.

One of the most controversial among the restrictive laws is Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The state Legislature approved it this year. It takes effect July 1.

It set out restrictions on primary education, such as prohibiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. State lawmakers said sex education is a matter for parents, not schools.

It also bans instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity that is not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in any grade of the public school system.

Among its public critics was The Walt Disney Company, under pressure from its employees. The criticism led some members of the Florida Legislature to threaten revoking the company’s special taxing district authority that has helped it raise money since Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

Other state laws or school district policies cited during the House hearing included a Kansas law that makes it a misdemeanor for teachers to use any literature that depicts gay people, a South Dakota public school ban on racially focused books and the case of a Missouri teacher who was fired for using a worksheet that addressed racial issues in an elective literature class.

A Reuters story published in February reported 220 death threats against school officials, mostly over race, gender and masking policies.

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., agreed controversial historical episodes, such as struggles to overcome racism in the United States, should be included in classroom instruction. She expressed concern that the quality of education on history and other subjects declined during the quarantines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I cannot tell you how devastating COVID-19 and virtual schooling has been on our family and families across the country,” she said.

She was more cautious about sex education, saying, “Our children’s innocence should be prioritized and protected.”

Another concern of the lawmakers was the style of the laws. They said in an announcement of the hearing that the laws are “vaguely written to ban a large swath of literature, curriculum, historical topics and other media in classrooms.”

Timothy Snyder, a Yale University history professor, drew parallels between recent state laws censoring some kinds of education and efforts by the Russian government to win favor among its population for the invasion of Ukraine by controlling the media.

“Democracy requires history and free speech,” Snyder said.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said, “There is a wide chilling effect that is descending on our schools.” PEN America is a human rights and free expression advocacy organization.

Learning about sexual orientation and race relations promotes tolerance, while glossing over them leads to hatred and bigotry, she said.

“Censorship is not the answer” for dealing with diversity, she said. 

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said incidents such as last weekend’s racially based shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket serve as examples of why free expression on controversial issues is needed in schools. Ten people were killed by an accused 18-year-old gunman who sought out a neighborhood with a predominantly Black population.

“It shows what can happen when we ignore hatred,” Maloney said.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com and @TomRamstack

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