Where Will It End?

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

First, they ban books; then, speech. Where does it end?

The modern Republican Party has launched numerous assaults in recent years on freedoms most Americans take for granted. The right to vote is under attack by Republicans doing the bidding of disgraced former President Donald Trump, who continues to push the “Big Lie” that he won the 2020 presidential election. Republican-controlled states have passed or are considering a plethora of laws restricting the right to vote and laying the groundwork for voter nullification.

In Virginia, Tuesday’s gubernatorial race hinges on Republican attempts to make critical race theory, which is not taught in the state’s public schools, an issue and attacks on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, written by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Bogus so-called cultural issues are the Virginia Republicans’ answer for the party’s inability to grapple with substantive issues such as access to healthcare and repairing the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee, would rather attack academic freedom than discuss the serious issues affecting Virginia voters. 

It is in Florida, though, where academic freedom is under the gravest threat today. Three University of Florida professors have been barred from assisting plaintiffs who are trying to overturn the state’s new restrictive voting law. According to a report in The New York Times, university officials told the educators that their testimony would not be in the university’s “interests.” Denying the teachers the right to testify is precedent-shattering. Like institutions of higher learning in most states, the University of Florida routinely has allowed academic experts to testify in court, even when that testimony runs counter to the interests of the political party in power. 

A spokesperson for the university told the Times that the school is not denying “the First Amendment right or academic freedom” of the professors. Rather, the spokesperson said, “The university denied the requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.” In other words, University of Florida employees are free to say whatever they want as long as what they say is not forbidden by the state of Florida. 

The three professors have filed a suit of their own challenging the school’s decision to bar them from testifying. In their suit, the teachers seek to question Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to find out if his office was involved in the university’s decision. DeSantis has staked his political ambitions on out-Trumping Trump by backing the voter suppression laws the state legislature has passed. He certainly has an interest in who testifies in the original suit challenging the state’s attack on voting rights. The United Faculty of Florida, a union representing faculty at the states’s public schools, tweeted, “Why would @GovRonDeSantis be afraid of experts?”  

This is scary stuff! Republicans are pushing wars on culture because they appeal to the party’s base and rev up voter enthusiasm. At least, that is the supposition, which will be tested in the Virginia governor’s race. Virginia has been trending blue, but polls show Youngkin pulling even with — or ahead of — Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking a return to the governor’s office. 

A Youngkin victory would provide a template for Republicans running in the 2022 midterm elections. It would also give fresh impetus to attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures seeking to pass laws restricting how teachers discuss racism, sexism, and issues of equality and justice in the classroom. More than half the states are considering or have considered legislation to control classroom curriculum. Many of the laws are designed to keep critical race theory out of schoolrooms. More fundamentally, they are an attempt to sanitize the teaching of American history. 

Teaching about the American past has motivated Republicans at the national level as well. Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation to cut federal funding for schools that base lessons on the “1619 Project,” a New York Times series that stresses the enduring legacy of slavery on American society. Representative Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would direct teachers in District of Columbia public schools on how to discuss racism and sexism. 

The current attacks on academic freedom beg comparison with the early years of the Cold War. But, the current situation is worse than the McCarthyism of the 1950s. The Red Scare of those years marginalized dissent and encouraged conformity, but its promulgators did not attempt to influence classroom teaching or school curriculum. The McCarthyites went after supposed Communists with the goal of getting them fired from teaching posts. 

The nation’s schools and universities often complied, but their classrooms remained inviolate. This time around is different for one fundamental reason. In the 1950s, the supposed enemy was a foreign ideology pushed by a foreign adversary abetted by supposed accomplices at home. Today, the enemy is the American past.

Cleansing the past — insuring that students do not learn the more unsavory parts of American history — motivates those who feel their power threatened, politicians and the shrinking White electorate alike. The emphasis on influencing school curriculum combined with attacks on academic freedom raises a fundamental question: Where will it end?

Because where speech is censored and books are banned, books are then burned. Where books are burned, then people are burned. It could happen here!

Posted November 2, 2021