Approximately six weeks after holding a hearing to investigate the recent surge of book bannings in public school libraries and classrooms around the country, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a second hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning. This hearing addressed, in Maryland Congressman and subcommittee chair Jamie Raskin’s words, “the closely related nationwide assaults on the rights of teachers and students to engage in free speech in in the classroom," especially in discussions relating to race, racism, and LGBTQ issues.

After introducing into the record a letter condemning book bannings and censorship in public schools signed by 1,300 children’s and YA authors and illustrators, including Judy Blume, Rick Riordan, Mo Willems, and Jacqueline Woodson, Raskin pointed out that the term often invoked by those supporting restrictions upon classroom discussions of race and racism—“critical race theory”—used to be taught in law schools to explain “the stubborn hold of white supremacy and racism” in the U.S., even after 1954 and the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Critical race theory was never taught in public schools, Raskin noted; right wing zealots co-opted the term to “make it the name of everything they wanted to purge from public schools in America—specifically the actual history of race and racism in our country, as well as teachings about gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Noting that “some 17 states” have proposed or already passed laws or adopted orders prohibiting the discussion of race-related issues in current events, history, and literature class discussions, Raskin said such laws were “the hallmark of authoritarian regimes.” He called the effort to pass them a “sinister strategy” to undermine public education that has expanded into attacks on the LGBTQ community by raising “a moral panic about lesbian and gay people recruiting and indoctrinating children, grooming them for sexual exploitation.”

Pointing out that a proposed law in Tennessee would prohibit the use of any classroom materials addressing LGBTQ lifestyles and that a proposed bill in Kansas would make it a misdemeanor for teachers to bring into the classroom any materials depicting LGBTQ individuals, Raskin explained that such laws are neither meant to benefit students nor to support parents’ rights to involvement in their children’s education. “They’re being passed to enforce the will of a right wing minority, hell-bent on destroying public schools against the exhausted majority of parents who support real education and trust teachers, principals and elected school boards to do right by their children,” he said.

“These laws,” Raskin concluded, “are being used to undermine public faith in public schools and destroy one of the key pillars of our democracy.”

Elected Officials Respond

In response, South Carolina Congresswoman Nancy Ruth Mace, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, noted that in 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures and school boards are empowered to “establish and apply their curricula in such a way as to transmit community values,” adding that “it makes total sense,” as legislatures and school boards are both accountable to voters. “And, as we like to say up here in Washington, D.C., on the hill, the government that is closest to the people is the government that governs best for the people,” she said.

After alleging that during the pandemic, teachers’ unions “conspired with the far left” to keep schools closed and parents away from school board meetings, Mace then claimed that teachers have been promoting “race as essentialism, racial scapegoating, [and] concepts of a sexual nature,” and that “lesson plans [are] laced with divisive and radical ideologies.”

“Our children’s innocence should be protected, and prioritized,” she concluded. “Our children should not be taught that they are oppressors or victims based on the color of their skin. Instead, we should redouble on our efforts to ensure that our children have the foundation to achieve their full potential.”

Disclosing that she had once been a school teacher, upstate New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, responded to Mace’s argument by asserting that teachers should have the right to “tell children the truth: the truth about our history, the truth about our great nation, and the truth about themselves.” She added that limiting such discussions on race, gender, and LGBTQ issues “is an affront to the right of free speech guaranteed in our Constitution.”

Referring to the mass shooting of 10 Black Americans this past weekend in Buffalo, which is in her district, Maloney warned that censorship laws encourage the spread of “hateful ideologies.” Not only that, she pointed out, but censorship in classrooms inevitably “poisons relationships between teachers, students, and their families,” as trust is replaced by fear and paranoia.

Citizen Testimony

Following the remarks made by these three members of Congress, three high school students, two former educators, and a parent testified regarding their personal experiences with censorship in schools. Experts on various aspects of the issue of censorship also testified: PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, speaking on freedom of expression; Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder, an expert on authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe; and, defending parental oversight of classroom instruction and materials, Virginia Gentles, director of the Education Freedom Center Independent Women’s Forum, an organization that lobbies for more transparency concerning school curriculums and educational materials.

Nossel condemned the “unprecedented about-face” regarding freedom of speech on the part of state legislatures, communities, and school boards. “Some Americans,” she said, “have become convinced that so-called divisive concepts or even stories about diverse families are so menacing to our children and young people that it is worth sacrificing the Constitution and betraying the First Amendment in order to suppress them.”

Such censorship, Nossel said, is obstructing the ability of teachers to teach and students to learn. “What began with a concern over how issues of racial justice and American history were being taught in schools,” she said, “has burgeoned into a full scale campaign to ban, prohibit and punish the discussion of certain ideas in education.” And the debate over critical race theory, she added, “is a concerted campaign to try to halt and roll back the implications of our evolving, pluralistic society.”

PEN America has, since January 2020, tracked the introduction of 185 bills in 41 states to restrict classroom discussion, which the literary advocacy nonprofit organization categorizes as “educational gag orders.” Nineteen of these bills have become law in 15 states, she said, and four other states have enacted such prohibitions without legislation. “We estimate that about 122 million Americans live in the 19 states where these government restrictions on teaching are now in force,” she said, noting that all of these bills restrict the flow of information pertaining to BIPOC or LGBTQ individuals.

Censorship's Impact Upon Society

Insisting that such legislation will have "tangible consequences," not only upon American education but upon democracy as well, Nossel said that “distorting the lens through which the next generation will study American history and society and undermining the hallmarks of liberal education that set the U.S. system apart from those of authoritarian countries.” In Iowa, she pointed out, a high school student reported to PEN America that their entire class was confused by a teacher’s explanation of the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution because so much had to be left out of the discussion.

“In ring-fencing certain ideas, these laws force teachers to tiptoe around important elements of curriculum,” Nossel said. This results, she argued, in teaching and, as a result, learning becoming distorted and ineffective.

Nossel also noted that some legislators are suggesting draconian measures to enforce their restrictive laws—which, she pointed out, polls indicate are unpopular with a majority of Americans—with proposals including a loyalty oath for teachers in New Hampshire and video cameras installed in classrooms in Iowa and Mississippi. A hotline has already been set up in Virginia for citizens to report defiant teachers.

“Bills introduced in numerous states would create searchable online databases,” she added, “allowing politicians, parents, and the general public to microscopically scrutinize all learning materials given to students in any class, even those that grow organically out of classroom discussions. As a proud advocate who has championed the U.S.’s stalwart leadership on free speech issues in forums all over the world, I barely recognize my own country.”

Public schools, Nossel pointed out, ideally are “an essential unifying institution, knitting together the fabric of American democracy.” With the rise in book bannings and censorship of classroom discussions, however, they have become “raw, shredded battlegrounds” between political/cultural factions that may end up “undermining and dismantling our democracy,” she said.

Calling the current situation an “Ed Scare,” which she defined as a perfect storm of book bannings, educators being fired, laws being passed to restrict classroom discussion, “and other proposals to curtail freedom of thought and discussion in our schools,” Nossel asserted that “the test for us as a society, and as a democracy, is in how we respond.”