Updated 2/24/2021– The Indiana bill which sought to make it a criminal offense for teachers or librarians to allow students to read material deemed “obscene” (see below for NCAC’s thoughts on the complexity of determining that a book important enough to be assigned in school could be considered obscene) has died in the Indiana Senate. The bill’s sponsor, however, has vowed to bring the bill forward again next year. Writers of the bill expressed their concern about children encountering explicit material, but did make public the specific books that inspired the bill.
Updated 2/17/2021– Some of the bills introduced in state legislatures which seek to censor teachers in the classroom have seen important developments–both positive and negative. Our original article explaining these bills is below.
A few of the bills have been withdrawn or defeated in committee. Those bills include a North Dakota bill which sought to prevent teaching about gender expression; a Mississippi bill which sought to prevent teaching the 1619 Project; and two South Dakota bills which sought to limit teaching about social justice.
However, bills in Minnesota and Indiana which seek to make it a crime for schools to expose students to supposedly “obscene” works have picked up additional co-sponsors, even though works which have enough merit to be assigned in class cannot be “obscene.” An Arkansas bill (HB 1231) which would bar teaching the 1619 Project also picked up additional sponsors, as did another bill in Arkansas (HB1218) which would eliminate teaching about social justice.
Most concerning of all is that two bills in Iowa have been approved by relevant subcommittees. One bill, SF167, would limit teaching about gender identity. The other bill, HF222, would cut funding to any school which teaches the 1619 Project.
NCAC believes that curriculum decisions should be made by educators, not by politicians. SF167 is currently before the Iowa Senate’s Education Committee, the members of which are listed here. HF222 is before the House Education Committee. That committee’s members are listed here.
Contact information for the bills in Minnesota, Indiana and Arkansas which have collected additional co-sponsors is as follows:
Minnesota HF232 is before the House Education Policy Committee
Indiana SB288 is before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee
Arkansas HB1231 and HB1218 are both before the House Education Committee
Originally posted 2/16/2021– As state legislatures convene for the 2021 session, a slew of legislation has been introduced across the country that aims to exert control over classroom teaching. The bills focus on two major themes: sexuality (an area legislators have long sought to control) and social justice and the new perspectives it offers in understanding both the present and history. One bill goes so far as to incentivize parents to pull their children out of public school entirely if they disagree with the curriculum.
The most common target of these censorship attempts is The 1619 Project, a curriculum based on a series of New York Times articles which, in its own words, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” Bills have been introduced in five states to bar schools from teaching that curriculum.
Although some historians have taken issue with the project, these bills are animated by political concerns, not historiographical ones. They are blatant–and illegitimate–attempts to silence perspectives with which the bills’ authors disagree. The two identical bills introduced in Arkansas and Mississippi complain that The 1619 Project constitutes an “activist movement” which claims “that America was not founded on the ideals of the Declaration but rather on slavery and oppression,” and that it is a “racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.” Two other bills, identical to one another but filed in different states, seek to bar teaching anything which “promotes division between, resentment of, or social justice for a race, gender, political affiliation, social class; or particular class of people.” Although a state legislature can legitimately attempt to reduce divisions among groups of people, it cannot legitimately ban the promotion of “social justice,” or any other criticism of current social and political structures. By including a ban on teaching anything about social justice, these laws would likely violate First Amendment law by improperly seeking to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” (The 1943 Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. Barnette established this long-held precedent that bars schools from enforcing a unanimity of opinion on any topic.)
The same is true of several bills (in Florida, Minnesota and Iowa) which seek to make it a crime for a school to assign books which contain material which is deemed “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” Teachers who do so could face criminal prosecution. As NCAC noted in 2019 when a similar bill was introduced (and ultimately defeated) in Maine, this sort of bill makes no sense: By definition, a work which has serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value is neither obscene nor “harmful to children,” and instructional materials are selected precisely because they have serious literary, artistic, or scientific value. Hence, the true motive of such legislation is to intimidate teachers into avoiding material that contains any references to sexuality, because some legislators believe such matters must be kept away from schools. Such laws are, indeed, likely to foster a chilling culture of fear and self-censorship, making teachers’ jobs even more difficult and severely limiting the breadth of literature and inquiry available to students.
Perhaps the most egregious bill introduced so far this year is one in New Jersey which would allow any parent who objects to a learning material or activity that the parent considers harmful to receive a voucher to enroll her or his child in a private school. The bill defines “an objection to a learning material or activity on the basis that it is harmful” to include “an objection that the material or activity questions, violates, or conflicts with the parent or guardian’s belief or practice regarding sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, conscience, ethics, morality, or religion.” If that bill is enacted, it would all but guarantee that the schools of New Jersey will never present any material which is not in lockstep with whatever the majority of local parents–or even a significant minority–deem to be “orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion,” because if they do so they run the risk of losing the majority of their students. As NCAC always advocates, such curricular decisions must be based on educational and pedagogical reasoning, not the personal viewpoints of specific community members.
If the past is any guide, most of these bills will ultimately not pass. Indeed, at least two of them have already died. Yet, they will likely be replaced by others, if not this year, then the next. Citizens must be alert to the threats posed by such bills and oppose them firmly each and every time they are introduced.