Several authors of note and for whom I have great respect recently published an open letter at the New York Times. In light of laws passed in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho, and Texas, they thought it important to take a stand against censorship. Given that conservative views are on the societal and governmental chopping block these days, I think we can all agree that censorship is bad.
We can all agree that the government shouldn’t be collaborating with private companies to kill free speech by “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” We can all agree that companies making the work environment intolerable by imposing Critical Race Theory training is awful. And we can all agree—if we’re standing on principle and not rank partisanship—that it’s a damn shame when people feel like they can’t share their views and support firing people who think differently.
We want a free and open society, not a closed one that tolerates a single viewpoint. We want liberty, not tyranny. That part, at least, is not complicated.
So, what’s the complaint of this diverse group of writers who claim to “span the ideological spectrum: a progressive, a moderate, a libertarian and a conservative?” Simply put, they think laws that prohibit Critical Race Theory in schools constitutes censorship. But, just as simply, they are wrong.
Let’s start with this muck up: “Tennessee House Bill SB 0623, for example, bans any teaching that could lead an individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.””
If this were true, I’d agree that the law went too far, but even a cursory reading of the law itself shows that they have omitted a key phrase. What the law says is that materials that promote the idea that “[a]n individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex” are prohibited (emphasis added). In other words, teachers are not allowed to tell students that they should feel a certain way because of their race or sex.
The way the writers present it, one would think that the law focuses on how students feel, which would be moronic. The past few years have shown us that people will feel offended about anything and take it as a sign of their moral superiority that they do. Millions of people prefer to settle for a rapidly declining president just to get away from mean tweets, so feelings as such are a faulty guide.
The law clearly focuses on what the students are taught and only prohibits instructing students that they ought to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress” on account of some immutable characteristic. That is a far cry from censorship.
The writers also take issue with particular text in the Texas law: “Texas House Bill 3979 goes further, forbidding teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.” It also bars any classroom from requiring “an understanding of the 1619 Project” — The New York Times Magazine’s special issue devoted to a reframing of the nation’s founding — and hence prohibits assigning any part of it as required reading.”
While I completely agree that we should be able to contest openly and civilly what the “authentic founding principles of the Unites States” are, I am shocked that the writers believe it at all appropriate, fair, or practical to allow publicly funded K-12 schools to teach that America is terrible.
The 1619 Project asserts that America’s true founding was not 1776 but 1619, when the first slaves arrived in the Virginia colony. Is the idea that American taxpayers and educational institutions are obliged to allow instruction that undermines their very foundation? What foolishness! We might as well require fire departments to employ arsonists.
These laws are about the curricula offered to students, not the students themselves. The Texas law goes so far as to forbid schools from enacting student codes of conduct that “would result in the punishment of a student for discussion, or have a chilling effect on student discussion of” the concepts involved in the law. What’s more, the law requires students to become intimately familiar with slavery, racism, abolitionism, and the lasting effects of racism via a long list of readings from Frederick Douglas to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like any law targeting speech, we should certainly tread with caution. There are several passages in the laws that are vague and could cause problems. The authors even point at least one of these out. Instead of reading carefully and focusing on real problems, though, the writers of this open letter make claims that are false about laws that they had already decided were bad.
Craft laws regarding speech carefully. Leave ample room for discussion and agreement. Allow the best ideas room enough to win out in the end, and give as much freedom as you can along the way. By and large, these laws do just that.