Bills Promote Unconstitutional Censorship of Learning
Educators’ freedom of speech is under assault this coming legislative session., H. 4605, H. 4325, H. 4343, H. 4392, H. 3338, and S. 534 all seek to restrict the information that teachers, professors, and librarians can share with students. The academic freedoms at stake present a “special concern for the First Amendment.” Our children deserve the opportunity to discuss and reckon with our country’s past. Just as every parent and educator emphasizes that no child can be perfect, our Constitution prohibits state legislators from obstructing the teaching of America’s failures, particularly with regard to its treatment of marginalized groups.
The text of many of these bills is unconstitutionally vague. For example, some bills prohibit teachers from teaching concepts that cause children “discomfort” or “psychological distress.” But educators cannot be reasonably expected to know what information may make an individual child uncomfortable. Further, many of the bills prohibit schools from compelling students to “personally affirm, adopt, or adhere” to a variety of concepts but fail to define these operative verbs. These laws fail on their vagueness alone. Restrictions on freedom of speech must, at minimum, be clear. When educators cannot ascertain what speech is banned, their speech rights are chilled and everyone loses. We cannot expect classrooms to be the cradles of the democracy we need them to be if we force our teachers to tiptoe around under clouds of opacity.
Other bills are nefarious on their face. The Academic Integrity Act (H. 4343) bans educators from speaking about any “claim, view, or opinion” contained with the 1619 Project. The 1619 Project is a Pulitzer Prize winning compilation of essays, organized by Nikole Hannah-Jones, that examines the roles that different systems have played in perpetuating racism throughout our country’s history. The compilation of essays is approximately 29,000 words. To ban every viewpoint contained within an anthology of such length is overbroad to a point our Constitution does not permit. The 1619 Project opens, for example, with the claim that “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when written.” Under H. 4343, any discussion of the inescapable conflict between “all men are created equal” and the institution of chattel slavery (or its tacit approval in the Three-Fifths Compromise) would be illegal. Coincidentally, some Republican proponents of the bill have themselves asserted that slavery was the sole betrayal of America’s founding ideals. Their prohibition is so broad as to ban their own views. These censorship bills undeniably and, given their vagueness and overbreadth, understandably chill educators’ speech.
Finally, these bills improperly target certain topics that their constituents disfavor, particularly any instruction regarding race, sex, and gender. In practice, these laws would inflict pronounced harms on historically marginalized students by erasing their identities from the history curriculum. While this harm may be felt more profoundly by students who are members of these groups, it also harms society at large. In order for the next generation of leaders to move our democracy forward, they need to have an honest understanding of our past. Sponsors of this legislation allege that it is intended to prevent divisiveness, but the opposite is true. Forbidding students from learning about each other only sows the seed for misunderstanding and division, and impedes any honest reconciliation with our shared history.
Parents should always be able to voice any displeasure they have with their child’s education. They have and will continue to have the right to bring any concerns to their school or school board. While state lawmakers have the authority to set curricular standards, codifying the misguided concerns of a few loud parents is dangerous to our democracy and is antithetical to the spirit of inclusive and pluralistic public education.
For all the stated reasons, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina opposes the passage of the aforementioned censorship bills.