At Subcommittee Hearing, Witnesses Warn Classroom Censorship Laws Hurt Students and Teachers, Erode Constitutional Freedoms

May 19, 2022
Press Release

Washington, D.C. (May 19, 2022)—Today, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held a hearing to examine ongoing efforts to censor classroom discussion about American history, race, and LGBTQ+ issues, and to punish teachers who violate vague and discriminatory state laws by discussing these topics.  The hearing followed the Subcommittee’s April 7, 2022, hearing on book bans.

“This hearing addresses the closely related nationwide assault on the rights of teachers and students to engage in free speech and learning in the classroom through the dissemination of basic facts and historical truths that are deemed by some, politically incorrect or just uncomfortable,” said Chairman Raskin.  “Authoritarianism always opposes historical memory and teachings that record and evoke the experiences of prior victims of authoritarianism, racism, and fascism.  The historical record of oppression and suffering is treated as an impediment to imposing new forms of control over people’s lives and people’s thoughts and people’s bodies.”   

 

“Censoring classroom discussions on race, gender, and LGBTQ issues is an affront to the right of free speech guaranteed in our Constitution,” said Chairwoman Maloney.  “It can also have devastating consequences.  The horrifying, racist attack at a grocery store in my home state this past weekend shows what happens when we let ignorance and hatred spread.” 

 

The Subcommittee heard testimony from Elle Caldon, a high school student from Dallas County, Texas; Claire Mengel, a high school student from Hamilton County, Ohio; Krishna Ramani, a high school student from Oakland County, Michigan; Willie Carver, a former teacher at Montgomery County High School in Mount Sterling, Kentucky and the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year; Jennifer Cousins, a parent from Orlando, Florida; Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America; Timothy Snyder, Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University; James Whitfield, the former principal of Colley Heritage High School in Colleyville, Texas; and Virginia Gentles, Director of the Education Freedom Center at the Independent Women’s Forum.

 

Members and witnesses discussed how laws recently enacted or proposed in a number of states to prohibit discussion of race and LGBTQ+ issues violate free speech principles and mirror policies implemented by authoritarian governments around the world.

 

  • In his testimony, former teacher Willie Carver said: “Our administrator’s new directive is ‘nothing racial.’ Parents now demand alternative work when authors are black or LGBTQ, and we are told to accommodate them, but I can’t ethically erase black or queer voices.  We ban materials by marginalized authors, ignoring official processes. One parent complaint removes all students’ books overnight.  Students now use anti-LGBTQ or racist slurs without consequence.  Hatred is politically protected now.” 
     
  • In response to a question from Rep. Wasserman Schultz about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, Jennifer Cousins, a Florida resident and parent of a non-binary child said:  “My two youngest are rising first and third graders, so the way that this is going to impact us is if they should be discussing the makeup of our family or their older [non-binary] sibling whilst in the classroom, some kid overhears it, goes home, and says, ‘Hey, guess what? So-and-so’s sibling identifies this way.’  If the parent doesn’t like the makeup of our family, they are now fully within the rights of the law to go and sue the school.”   

 

  • In response to a question from Congresswoman Norton about the similarity between these censorship laws and those found in authoritarian regimes, Professor of History Timothy Snyder said:  “We can’t help but be struck by the fact that the banning of books and the attempt to limit classroom discussion to some kind of homogenized set of topics is a hallmark of the early stages of the end of democracy.  That is a simply a fundamental part of the historical record.”  He continued:  “So, in that way, there is nothing more undemocratic than to limit the possibility of discussion about the past.  Because it is precisely discussions about the past that allow us to see different viewpoints, to correct to our own mistakes, and to make better policy.” 

 

Witnesses explained that these state laws and legislative proposals are often vaguely worded, overly broad, and inject micromanagement into classrooms.

 

  • In his testimony, former principal Dr. James Whitfield explained:  “Teachers are met with interpreting vague legislation which speaks to not making people feel ‘discomfort or anguish.’  Educators who pour their heart and soul into the growth and development of young people have been placed squarely in the crosshairs of political groups who are determined to destroy public education.  They have faced online bullying, calling for their jobs.  They have received death threats and hate mail.  They have reached points of frustration and exhaustion that I have not seen in my near two decades in this profession.” 
     
  • In response to a question from Congresswoman Norton about intentionally vague language in laws, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America Suzanne Nossel testified:  “The risk for teachers is that all sorts of things that they may put forward could fall under that ambit if it’s being interpreted broadly.  And so, they have to be very cautious.  We’ve seen, just in the last few days, teachers who are afraid to talk about what happened in Buffalo for fear that they may run afoul of a prohibition on discussions of race or racial supremacy in the classroom, which are now banned by law in some states.  And so, there is a wide chilling effect that is descending on our schools, where all sorts of subject matter suddenly are put off limits.”

 

Students highlighted how censorship laws undermine public education underestimate students’ ability to comprehend and discuss “controversial” topics. 

 

  •  Texas high school student Elle Caldon discussed losing her English and journalism teacher and another history teacher because they had stood up to the school administration when they “covertly” removed rainbow ally stickers from classroom doors one weekend: “She was removed right in front of me and my classmates during my seventh period newspaper class on September 16th.”   She continued:  “In my view, administrators could only be satisfied to leave their school without a newspaper, a yearbook, a philosophy club, a competitive journalism team, a National Honors Society, and great history and English teachers—during a teacher shortage—if they had abandoned the belief that education matters more than politics.” 

   

  • Ohio student Claire Mengel explained:  “Our teachers are scared.  I have had teachers whisper to me that they wish they could take a sticker that says ‘Protect Diversity Day,’ but they fear repercussions.  Something has gone very wrong when teachers think they will be fired for supporting the concept of diversity.  Most critically, students of color are being told by the highest authority in their district that their stories don’t deserve to take up school time, school grounds, or school resources.” 

  

  • Michigan student Krishna Ramani pleaded with Members to give young people a chance to be heard:  “We are more connected, more educated, and more active than ever before.  And as we continue to tear down this glass fence that separates the minds on Capitol Hill from the innovators of our time, we have a duty to stop underestimating young peoples ability to understand and connect with nuanced literature.  It’s time to stop underestimating us.” 

 

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Issues: 
117th Congress