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Report Details How Bans on Teaching About Racism Are Chilling Free Speech

The report from PEN America is based on an investigation of 54 separate bills from 24 state legislatures across the U.S.

People listen to speakers during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12, 2021.

For the past year, Republican lawmakers have been manufacturing a moral panic among their base, falsely claiming that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 schools in order to pass a series of authoritarian laws banning educators from teaching about racism. According to a recently released report, this legislation infringes upon teachers’ First Amendment right to free speech.

The report was issued on Monday by PEN America, an advocacy group that promotes the protection of free expression and other human rights. In it, the organization noted that 24 state legislatures have introduced 54 separate bills seeking to ban lessons about the history of white supremacy and the ongoing effects of racism in the U.S.

The legislation is “intended to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools, higher education, and state agencies and institutions,” the organization wrote.

“Collectively, these bills are illiberal in their attempt to legislate that certain ideas and concepts be out of bounds, even, in many cases, in college classrooms among adults,” PEN America said, adding that the bills demonstrate “a disregard for academic freedom” and “the values of free speech and open inquiry that are enshrined in the First Amendment and that anchor a democratic society.”

“In seeking to silence race- or gender-based critiques of U.S. society and history that those behind them deem to be ‘divisive,’ these bills are likely to disproportionately affect the free speech rights of students, educators, and trainers who are women, people of color, and LGBTQ+,” the organization went on.

Experts on academic freedom agree with PEN America’s findings — and many educators have warned about the increasing number of parents and right-wing advocates pushing back against lessons about racism in K-12 schools.

“My hunch is many [school districts, administrators and teachers] will be silenced out of fear due to angry parents coming to the board meetings,” Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, said to The Washington Post.. “It’s not easy to go out and talk to folks in a reasonable manner when dealing with angry people.”

Past months have seen a rise in angry parents threatening teachers and school administrators over the supposed teaching of critical race theory and rules meant to address the coronavirus pandemic in schools; some of these parents have even engaged in acts of violence against school officials. Last month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the FBI and other agencies would investigate such incidents that warranted their attention.

In response, parents and right-wing advocates errantly claimed that the DOJ was targeting them for their views.

“There has been misinformation circulated that the Attorney General’s directive is an effort to silence those with particular views about COVID-related policies, school curricula, or other topics of public discussion. This is simply not true,” said Wyn Hornbuckle, DOJ deputy director of media affairs, in an email to The Associated Press.

Despite parents rallying against the teaching of critical race theory in schools, polling has demonstrated that many people have no idea what the theory actually entails — most likely because of right-wing pundits wrongly attesting that it’s a way to indoctrinate children with Marxism or tell white children to hate themselves. But polling also shows that parents overwhelmingly want their children to learn about racism and racial equity in school.

When asked in a USA Today/Ipsos poll from September whether critical race theory should be taught to their children, 49 percent of parents said yes, 30 percent said no, and 21 percent said they didn’t know. But when asked in the poll whether the “ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the U.S.” should be taught in classrooms — the basic premise explored by critical race theory — 63 percent of parents said those concepts should be taught, while just 30 percent opposed the idea.

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