The US is inspiring education censorship elsewhere

The US likes to lecture others on democracy and free speech, but is now leading the way on classroom censorship.

People protest outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department's office to restrict discussion of race, gender, and identity in the classroom, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Protesters opposing critical race theory in classrooms, outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department's office, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the US [File: Cedar Attanasio, File/AP Photo]

In school districts around the United States, book bans are spreading at an alarming rate. PEN America recently documented more than 2,500 book bans issued across 32 different states during the 2021-22 school year.

These bans are not isolated incidents, but part of a coordinated assault on public education that’s taking aim at the teaching of race, gender, LGBTQ+ identities and US history.

While demands to ban books in schools in the US are not new, over the last year and a half, book banning has erupted into a national movement. Coordinated and highly organised activist groups have transformed school board meetings into political battlegrounds, threatening educators and undermining students’ freedom to learn.

These efforts to censor books are an affront to the core principles of free expression and open inquiry that US democracy swears by. But equally worrying is the fact that this pattern of attacks on public education in the US appears to be inspiring similar efforts in other countries, even though such censorship campaigns haven’t had as much success there yet.

In the United Kingdom, officials are raising the spectre of critical race theory in schools — an issue that was not previously a topic of debate or concern — to try and stop the teaching of histories that explore systemic racism. That’s part of what authors and others have described as a mood “shift” in the UK — a budding “culture war” that is leading to the censorship and removal of books from school shelves. Books being removed are often children’s books that look at institutional racism, diversity and LGBTQ+ identities.

Echoes of US-based group tactics are also manifesting in Canada, with parental groups asking school boards to ban certain books — again with LGBTQ+ content — and seeking to change curricular topics that they see as being part of the teaching of critical race theory. The movement is also gaining the attention of politicians. Australia’s Senate voted against the inclusion of critical race theory in the country’s school curriculum in 2021.

Of course, educational censorship laws and book bans, particularly those aimed at silencing certain peoples, religions, or viewpoints, are tactics that have long been used by governments.

For example, in apartheid South Africa, the notorious Publications Act of 1974 permitted the banning of any “undesirable” material. That could include anything from material that “offended” public morals and religious sensibilities to books that challenged the apartheid ideology or undermined state security.

But the US has always viewed itself as a beacon of democracy — even though it has often failed to live up to its self-declared values and principles. Now, the signs are ominous. In 2021, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance classified the US as a backsliding democracy for the first time.

This year, a Tennessee school board removed “Maus” from classrooms; this Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust has previously been banned in Russia. School districts in Florida and Pennsylvania have banned biographies of women, including at one point former First Lady Michelle Obama, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. Others have carried out wholesale removals of books, often with LGBTQ+ protagonists, based on unsupported charges of “obscene” content.

These moves in the US have parallels with what’s happening in other countries Washington often lectures on human rights and liberal values.

Turkey has banned the sale of books such as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls — which offers a series of inspiring stories about women in history — to children.

Hungary, meanwhile, has banned an entire academic discipline: In 2018, the government officially removed gender studies Master’s and PhD programmes from the list of accredited subjects in the country. Last year, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed a law banning LGBTQ+ content for minors in schools.

And recently, Russia enacted a sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ bill that expands its definition of “LGBTQ propaganda,” targeting books, films, online and public activity, and advertisements. The law was introduced in reaction to a YA novel with LGBTQ+ protagonists.

Brazil has waged similar campaigns against ‘indoctrination’ and ‘gender ideology’ in schools, with lawmakers at the federal, state, and municipal levels introducing more than 200 legislative proposals since 2014 to ban gender and sexuality education and ‘indoctrination’ in schools. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least 21 laws directly or indirectly banning gender and sexuality education remain in force in Brazil as of May 2022.

As in the US, these bans run afoul of constitutional principles, which allow comprehensive sexuality education in Brazil. Educators in South America’s largest nation have reported a chilling effect on their willingness to talk about gender and sexuality in classrooms. Many of them face harassment and intimidation for teaching these subjects.

Teachers in the US have described a similar chilling effect due to book bans and other forms of educational censorship, with many proactively removing books and lesson plans from their classrooms in order to avoid potential backlash.

These trends represent a concerning step backwards for democratic norms: Freedom of expression depends on access to literature and information, especially in our schools, where students are exposed to a wide range of ideas to prepare them for the challenges of democratic citizenship.

Students from historically marginalised communities around the world face the most harm when these narratives are removed from classrooms, as it sends the message that their experiences are not socially acceptable or suitable for school.

Book bans and legislative efforts to restrict academic freedom are anathema to healthy democracies at home and abroad. Fighting back against these coordinated movements is essential to protect free expression and other democratic values across the globe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.