The Daily Gamecock

Experts say any restriction of speech will impact instructors, students at all levels of education

Michael Brown is in an eye-opening situation: He is a USC graduate student in library and information science, but he is also a sixth-grade English teacher.

Brown not only studies and researches information sciences in a college-level academic setting, but he also sees those studies come to life with his work in the classroom.

"I'm in a very peculiar spot where I am actively seeing the research at work — I'm seeing these things shifting and changing — but I'm also interacting with the people of tomorrow," Brown said.

With this experience, Brown said he has seen a disconnect between what he sees happening day-to-day in the classroom and what lawmakers are pushing for within the state legislature.

There are multiple bills working their way through the South Carolina General Assembly that would prohibit public schools and public institutions of higher learning from teaching critical race theory.

Critical race theory is an academic lens that states that American social institutions are laced with racism and that racism is embedded throughout America's laws and procedures. It is generally taught at a university level and not taught at the K-12 level

In late 2021, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also asked his superintendent of education and law enforcement to investigate the presence of what he saw as “obscene and pornographic” materials in public schools. McMaster used the book "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe, which details how Kobabe handled growing up while being nonbinary, as an example of this material. 

"The people who are making these pushes are not educators," Brown said. "They are people who are coming from a place of fear, ignorance and quite frankly, from just a place of misunderstood anger."

Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod, a USC political science professor, explained why lawmakers are focusing on education and why they are pushing for this legislation that centers around controlling school curriculums.

"This isn't like scary, bugaboo, like Republican Party, this is a campaign tactic," Meyer-Gutbrod said. "People mobilize around something that's affecting their lives and then what you want to do is you want to steer that towards issues that you own."

Meyer-Gutbrod said voters started to pay attention to education issues during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were shut down. Now, the Republican party is attempting to capitalize on education being in the spotlight, he said. 

"Once they were mobilized, the question was, 'What could you continue to slot into that problem to mobilize people?' So, I think the easy transition there was moving first to masks and then to curriculum," Meyer-Gutbrod said.

However, there is some confusion on whether prohibiting certain subject matters in schools is even legal. After Oklahoma passed a bill similar to what South Carolina is currently trying to pass, Oklahoma was sued on the grounds that the law violates students' and educators' First Amendment rights to discuss race and gender issues in the classroom.

Derek Black, a USC professor at the law school, specializes in education law. Black said the ultimate decision on public schools' curriculum in most states rests with either the state legislature or the state board of education.

"What tends to happen is that the legislature and/or the state board really articulate broad outlines of the curriculum and then local authorities sort of have discretion within those broad parameters," Black said. "It is highly unusual for the state to say, 'can't use that book.'"

Black said there is the legal precedent that school libraries have to operate on neutral grounds where they cannot choose to not buy books just because they do not agree with the ideas being propagated in the books.

Black also said public universities are generally seen as independent and have more protections than K-12 schools.

"The state does not control the curriculum at the university," Black said. "The state could say, 'we're not going to give you money for this.' That's different than saying you can't teach something."

However, Black did say that restricting speech at any level has impacts on all levels. Meyer-Gutbrod and Brown agreed with this sentiment.

"That type of activity can have a chilling effect on teachers," Meyer-Gutbrod said. "You can't really talk about political science without talking about controversial issues."

Brown also said that if students are not taught about race and gender issues, then they will not be prepared to come into college.

"We need these books and we need the perspectives from both sides — from all sides of the argument — in order to allow people to come to their own conclusions and to think critically," Brown said.