‘Gag orders’ squelch learning, threaten academic freedom

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With dozens of laws proposed to restrict how to teach about race, racism, gender and other potentially sensitive topics, the AFT and the American Association of University Professors joined together to condemn proposed threats to academic freedom and advocate for the unfettered flow of ideas on college campuses as well as in K-12 classrooms.

AFT/AAUP panel From top left, clockwise: Risa Lieberwitz, Irene Mulvey, Randi Weingarten, Frederica Wilson.

At a panel discussion April 12, leaders laid bare what they called “educational gag orders.” During 2022 state legislative sessions across the country, conservative lawmakers have introduced more than 170 bills that ban educators from teaching issues related to race, sex or religion; mandate termination of employees who violate these laws; and prohibit schools and universities from teaching, advocating or promoting “divisive concepts,” often putting educators in an impossible position for just trying to do their jobs. About half of these laws affect higher education.

“These divisive concept laws will infringe on academic freedom and hinder honest discussion on some of our country’s most significant issues,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor and a former teacher, school principal and school board member. “Their goal is to whitewash our history and prevent us from addressing the impacts of systemic racism and the legacy of slavery.”

“Ultimately … this is an attack on truth and it’s an attack on knowledge,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, emphasizing the importance of learning and critical thinking. Drawing a bright line between education and a strong democracy, she added, “The moment you take away people’s freedom to think, freedom to know, freedom to analyze, freedom to believe, is the moment we lose a democracy.”

“In a democracy there is no place for politicians to dictate what can be learned and taught in a classroom,” said AAUP President Irene Mulvey. “Fighting back against these educational gag orders is really fighting for democracy and our democratic way of life, in which we need well-educated citizens equipped with critical-thinking skills, understanding these issues when they step into the voting booth.”

“These legislative and political attacks are nothing less than state-mandated indoctrination to stifle and censor teaching about race and racism,” said Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor law at Cornell University and AAUP general counsel. And they threaten the founding tenets of AAUP, she added: to serve the common good, preserve academic freedom, and keep politicians out of curricular decisions.

This is everyone’s fight

The panel agreed that gag orders affect a broad swath of academics, and not just those who teach race, ethnic studies or gender studies. There can be disparities in every department, said Russel Skiba, professor emeritus of psychology at Indiana University. “This is something that all of us face.” He used the example of health inequities in the medical field, such as the biological research that uses “HeLa proteins,” named for Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cancer cells were used without her knowledge.

Skiba also pointed out that the laws are especially dangerous for adjunct and untenured faculty, who have less job security than tenured professors. He charged tenured faculty with using their privilege of relative safety from dismissal to fight against the destruction of academic freedom.

Skiba described how faculty at his university banded together with other community organizations to successfully defeat “divisive concept” laws in his state, where the Legislature is majority-Republican.

Working together

Key to the fight was a statewide coalition of organizations working together, including the NAACP, the teachers union, and advocates for social-emotional learning, juvenile justice and mental health. “There were so many people in so many organizations doing so many things [to defeat the divisive concepts bill],” said Skiba, and while far-right conservatives were not convinced, moderate Republicans eventually understood they could not support a bill that was so extreme.

Another key to the win in Indiana was an agreement among the advocates to focus on the harm the bill would have caused Black and brown students, whose personal history would have been dismissed and diminished. Also important was a commitment to the complete eradication of the bill rather than modification only.

Ultimately, said Mulvey, education gag orders would harm not just academics but the institution of higher learning. “These divisive concepts bills make it literally impossible for students to receive a full education of U.S. history,” she said. “Teachers and teaching are the targets, but the real losers are students who are denied opportunity to learn and to grow.”

“As an alliance of people who believe in knowledge, … believe in voice, and believe that this attempt to erase the truth is an anathema to the future of the country, we have to work together to make this case,” said Weingarten.

Several panelists underscored the importance of the AFT and the AAUP’s official affiliation, which will strengthen a united front for academic freedom. “It really does speak to higher ed for the common good,” said Lacy Barnes, a professor of psychology and co-chair of the AFT’s Higher Education program and policy council. The affiliation is supported by AFT and AAUP leadership, and AAUP membership will provide a final vote on the affiliation in June.

[Virginia Myers]