January 18, 2023

Mercedes Schneider: Conservative America’s New Authoritarianism: “Free Speech as Long as I Agree.”

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Mercedes Schneider is a teacher and writer in Louisiana. Here she writes a response to the rising tide of intolerance packaged as free speech. Reposted with permission. 

We are certainly in an age in which the term, “free speech,” is indeed not free because of increasing conservative pressure to shape speech into that which a minority of extreme, right-wing conservatives would agree with.

Of course, that is not “free speech” at all.

In my school district, the St. Tammany Library Alliance is combating the right-wing conservative push to ban library books not to its liking. In its campaign declaring “Libraries Are for Everyone,” the Alliance is circulating a petition that states the following:

St Tammany Parish is a welcoming community to all and we stand firmly against banning books.  As such we endorse the following statements:

  • We believe that all young people in our Parish deserve to see themselves reflected in our library’s collection.
  • We know a large majority of Americans (75%) across the political spectrum oppose book bans.We stand in opposition to the St Tammany Parish Accountability Project’s proposed “Library Accountability Board” ordinance because we believe parents should not be making decisions for other parents’ children about what they read or what is available in our public libraries.
  • Banning books from public libraries is a slippery slope to government censorship and a violation of our first amendment rights.
  • We hold our library Director, board and library staff in high regard and trust them to do their jobs.

We are united against book bans and we ask that our Parish President and Council pledge to act to protect the rights of members of our community to access a variety of books, magazines and other media through our public libraries.

Those truly adhering to and protecting free speech are at risk of losing their jobs– and under increasing pressure to modify their speech in order to please the extreme, disgruntled few.

I gladly signed the petition. Even though it is not likely that I might choose to read certain books harbored in my local public library, there is something much greater at risk if I try to impose a self-tailored book purge, and that something is freedom itself.

Freedom is not freedom if I tailor the freedom of others to suit my own preferences.

A great irony is that some of the same folks who would shape education and curriculum into their preferred image also promote themselves as great advocates of “school choice.”

Consider, for instance, Florida governor, Ron DeSantis.

In September 2022, DeSantis signed what seems to be the largest private school choice expansion bill in US history. Meanwhile, Florida’s teacher shortage is sounding the alarms at 5,300 vacancies as of January 2023– over triple the number of openings as of 2018. If DeSantis really wanted Florida parents to have a choice, he would make sure Florida’s public school classrooms had qualified teachers to fill those vacant slots. He tried to recruit military veterans to complete a certification pathway to become teachers and fill the void. However, as of December 2022, ABCActionNews could only document via Military.com that 7 military veterans had actually completed the program. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of education issued a statement saying that the media misreported this effort as a “fix” for Florida’s teacher shortage and that the Department was processing 500 applications. The Department said that the true goal of the program was to show tht Florid values its veterans.

Okay. Sooo, no value for teaching an dno true goal to address the shortage, and even filling 500 slots is a far cry from filling 5,300 slots– which means that the Department did itself no favors in trying to bend this failure into a PR success.

DeSantis values school choice that moves students (and associated funding) from the public classroom to the private classroom. That’s the choice he prefers, which, in the end, is no choice at all for his constituents:

Florida parents cannot choose between publicly-funded private schools and fully-staffed public schools.

DeSantis wants to legislatively limit discussion in higher ed of what he considers “woke” concepts even as his department of education launches an essay contest for Black History Month. (Um, just so long as the winning essay includes nothing to offend any would-be-offended white people?)

Indeed, Florida’s college and university professors and instructors who teach courses that explore the history and reality of black and brown Americans are feeling the DeSantis-brought pressure to not offend any would-be-offended, extremely-conservative white people, as the January 13, 2023, Orlando Sentinel reports:

…On Thursday, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, sent letters to presidents of the 12 state institutions, requesting records including lists of all diversity, equity and inclusion employees; a description of their responsibilities; and their salaries.

The purpose, he wrote, was to ensure students are receiving an education without “promoting an aggressively ideological agenda under the guise of diversity, equity and inclusion,” and to assess the “costs and benefits” of these initiatives.

Renner’s request follows one from DeSantis’ office last week, which sought a “comprehensive list of all staff, programs and campus activities” related to critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion at colleges and universities. Faculty unions decried the inquiry, saying they feared it could chill free speech on their campuses.

And faculty members say they’ve seen other signs that the governor has gained a foothold on their campuses, including the removal of the words “social justice” from the name of an office at UCF, which has been rebranded as the Office of Civil Discourse. The words “equity” and “equal” were also stripped from the office’s webpage.

This higher-ed, language-purge pressure comes on the heels of DeSantis’ effort to reconfigure Sarasota-based New College of Liberal Arts into his preferred, conservative image like that of Hillsdale College of Michigan by appointing six conservatives to the school’s board of trustees, as the January 14, 2023, Tampa Bay Times reports, with the goal of “top-down restructuring,” including a “new core curriculum from scratch,” according to board appointee Christopher Rufo.

In the New York Times via the Sentinel, Rufo succinctly states his true goal of catering to the preferences of ultra-right conservatives:

Rufo told The New York Times he and his new colleagues seek to transform New College into a public version of Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school.

“We want to provide an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values,” he said.

Instead of creating a Hillisdale-like conservative college from scratch, DeSantis via the likes of Rufo decided to kill off a liberal arts college that was the viable, free choice of more liberal Floridians and instead quash that choice to create a “choice” that suits right-wing conservative preferences.

Killing the choice with which one does not agree but which serves others is not choice.

Killing off what others prefer and replacing it with what you prefer Is. Not, Choice.

But such actions do garner national attention and will rally the support (and the votes) of those stuffed to the brim and blinded by their own self-righteousness.

National attention and votes are what I believe that anticipated presidential candidate DeSantis is truly after.

But it’s not just DeSantis. This strangulation of free speech is America’s new authoritarianism: “Free speech as long as I agree.”

Which, of course, is not free speech at all.

Watch out, America. Our democracy will not die from a mighty blow but from a thousand chips away at our freedoms– a chip-chip-chipping that will ultimately result in a terrible, irreversible fall that we can only blame on ourselves if we do not confront with a thousand grass-roots efforts this suffocation marketing itself as freedom.

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