June 27, 2023

Paul Bowers: Censors lose in the end

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Paul Bowers reports that the speech police in South Carolina are now after Ta-Nehisi Coates.

A most predictable outcome has arisen in South Carolina. After passing a gag order to stop the imaginary threat of “critical race theory” in schools, the state has purged a memoir about American racism from the syllabus in a high school classroom.

An outcome such as this was the obvious purpose of the teacher censorship provisos that Republican lawmakers slipped into the last two years’ state budgets, which forbid public school teachers from teaching that  “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his race or sex,” along with a long list of other vague speech prohibitions.

Bristow Marchant, a reporter at The State newspaper, reported on Monday that in the spring of 2022, students in an Advanced Placement Language and Composition class at Chapin High School complained to the Lexington-Richland 5 School Board after being assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 bestseller Between the World and Me.

“I am pretty sure a teacher talking about systemic racism is illegal in South Carolina,” one student wrote.

To be clear, it is not illegal for teachers to talk about systemic racism in South Carolina. But in a season of unhinged school board rants by the Moms for Liberty network, vague condemnations of “critical race theory” by the state education superintendent, micromanagement of classroom materials by the governor himself, and frivolous lawsuits filed by the all-white South Carolina Freedom Caucus alleging anti-white bias in schools, the unofficial state policy is to intimidate teachers into silence regardless of what the law says.

This time the administration caved. But Bowers sees cause for hope.

Jeremy C. Young, director of PEN America’s Freedom to Learn Program, wrote yesterday that the removal of Coates’ book at Chapin High School is an example of “outrageous government censorship.” It is. South Carolina educators and historians have been sounding the alarm about this wave of censorship for more than two years now.

Here, for example, is what the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission wrote to then-State Superintendent Molly Spearman on June 24, 2021, after she came out in favor of a vague ban on “critical race theory”:

Undeniably, slavery, Jim Crow, and systematic racism are all a part of our history, and they continue to impact our society today. We must present our history as it occurred, not how certain groups wish it had been. Addressing difficult lessons from the past, allows us to better understand and educate students in the present while avoiding making similar mistakes in the future.

To date, curriculum censors in the South Carolina General Assembly have only managed to enact their will via year-by-year provisos that they slip into the budget without much discussion. They attempted to make this provisional gag order permanent this year with House Bill 3728, a teacher censorship bill that they called the “Transparency and Integrity in Education Act.” I traveled to Columbia in March to testify against this bill, as did dozens of others. Nobody in the subcommittee meeting that day spoke in favor of this senseless, odious bill.

Thanks in part to intra-party beef between mainstream Republican lawmakers and the marginally more extremist South Carolina Freedom Caucus, the bill’s sponsors didn’t manage to pass a version of the bill that reconciled the House and Senate amendments this year. They’ll have another chance to ram the bill through when the legislative session continues in 2024.

We can kill this bill in the Statehouse, or we can kill it in the courts later on straightforward First Amendment grounds. However we win, we need to do it loudly and publicly, in overwhelming displays of solidarity with teachers like the one who stuck her neck out at Chapin High School. We’ve got the numbers. We’ve got the truth.

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