Published:Thursday, September 22, 2022
Note: This post was initially featured in the ACLU of Washington’s Spring Newsletter
By LaVendrick Smith, Media & Communications Strategist, ACLU of Washington
With the midterm elections approaching, schools — and specifically what is taught in them — have become a divisive issue. Educators are grappling with ways to teach topics like race, gender, and sexuality. But rather than embracing open dialogue about these issues, state legislatures and lawmakers throughout the country are working to limit the way schools discuss them.
That effort, which includes book bans and laws restricting or outright prohibiting certain curriculum, has amounted to a wave of school censorship that has alarmed free speech advocates.
PEN America, a literary non-profit focused on protecting free expression, tracked nearly 1,600 book banning attempts in school districts across 26 states between last fall and March. The books highlight themes that include race and LGBTQ issues, and often have prominent characters from historically marginalized communities.
It is not new for local community members to seek book bans, the organization says. However, PEN America found that 41% of the ban attempts it documented were connected to elected or state officials’ orders — a troubling trend undermining First Amendment principles.
“It really does feel like a culmination of a conservative backlash against efforts to be more inclusive,” said Kendrick Washington, policy advocacy director for the ACLU of Washington, who referred to the censorship movement as the “dying death rattle” of racism and bigotry.
“It’s just rooted in othering,” he said. “People have pushed companies and organizations to be more inclusive … and it's shifting the landscape. It's making people uncomfortable … And when people get uncomfortable, they get scared. And when they get scared, they lash out.”
Washington previously served as youth policy counsel for the ACLU-WA, advocating for policies that strengthen student rights in the state. He said there has not been as strong of a push in Washington State to censor schools as seen in other states, but the efforts are still there.
State lawmakers in the 2022 legislative session, for example, introduced House Bill 1807, a Republican-sponsored bill that sought to establish specific guidelines for teaching civics in K-8 education. The bill purported to allow lessons about the history of marginalized communities but put limits on teachers speaking on contemporary issues about race unless they provided varying viewpoints, which can lead to a harmful “both sides” narrative. The bill also aimed to stop teachings from The New York Times’ 1619 Project and historian Ibram X. Kendi’s popular book How to be an Antiracist. The legislation stalled in committee.
House Bill 1807 also sought to prevent schools from teaching Critical Race Theory, a graduate-level discipline on race that’s been assailed by conservative lawmakers. CRT examines how racism has influenced U.S. law and is typically only taught in universities. By April, however, 16 states had passed laws restricting teaching on race in schools. These laws were led by lawmakers who claimed CRT indoctrinated students or made them feel uncomfortable.
“Critical Race Theory has sort of become a boogeyman, particularly for conservative movements,” Washington said.
Officials have also taken aim at LGBTQ youth. While states like Florida have passed legislation restricting teachings on gender and sexuality, a few Washington school districts — including the Central Kitsap, Kent, Walla Walla school districts — all removed or considered bans on books about LGBTQ themes. The Walla Walla and Central Kitsap school districts both considered removing Gender Queer: A Memoir, a graphic autobiography the American Library Association said was the most banned book in 2021.
The censorship goes beyond bans on books and curriculum. Schools throughout the country have sought to limit student involvement in anything from clubs and athletics to protests. By May, as many as 15 states had passed banning transgender youth from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, for example.
Locally, the Marysville School District recently faced criticism for a proposing a policy that would require students to have parental consent to join school clubs. The plan was paused, but critics say such a policy is harmful to LGBTQ youth who could be forced to come out to disapproving parents before joining a needed resource like a Gay Student Alliance.
The spate of bans, policies, and laws targeting student expression can feel daunting. But there are ways to fight back, and students are doing just that. Teens in states like Texas, Pennsylvania, Missouri and New York have formed book clubs, held protests, and even sued districts for banning material. Locally, in Lacey, Washington, students started an effort to raise funds to file a class action lawsuit against North Thurston Public Schools after the district banned protests on campus earlier this year.
Washington said it is important for students to know their constitutional rights do not disappear when they step on school grounds. While censorship efforts are not new, he acknowledged this particular campaign is unique in its intensity, as those in power are met with resistance from diverse groups who justly refuse to cede hard-earned rights.
“I think what's frightening to those who don't want progress is seeing the strong coalition of people of different races and ethnicities, and backgrounds across socioeconomic lines, and what this indicates is a threat to power,” he said. “Because ultimately, that's what all this really comes down to … It's about power and the ability to control.”