Equity & Diversity

Educators’ Opposition to Censorship Comes at a Big Personal Cost

By Eesha Pendharkar — December 29, 2022 5 min read
Social studies teacher Matthew Hawn, who is accused of insubordination and repeated unprofessional conduct for teaching about racism and white privilege, sits on his couch inside his home on August 17, 2021.
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Matthew Hawn and Amanda Jones were early casualties of a conservative movement sweeping the country to restrict what children learn or read about “divisive topics” like racism or LGBTQ issues.

Now, months later, they have something else in common: They’re not quitters.

Education Week reached out to Hawn and Jones to facilitate a Zoom conversation about their situations and the similarities between them.

Hawn and Jones are part of a handful of teachers and librarians who gained national attention for their opposition to the backlash to lessons on race and racism or censorship.

A social studies teacher for 16 years, Hawn’s Tennessee district fired him almost a year and a half ago after parents complained about his use of the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay called “The First White President,” and his choice to ask his class to dissect a provocative spoken word poem titled “White Privilege” by Kyla Jenée Lacey.

An independent hearing officer decided that Hawn had failed to show varying perspectives in his lesson, and upheld the board’s decision to fire him. Now, he’s in the midst of taking his case to chancery court to appeal his school board’s firing decision.

A year later, in rural Louisiana, Jones gave a speech at her local public library against book banning, and became the target of extensive hate speech online for it. Weeks later, Jones said she received a death threat from Texas. The former national Librarian of the Year sued two Facebook groups over the online attacks, but her case was dismissed because the judge said she is a public figure. Now, she’s looking to reverse the dismissal, with plans to appeal to district court if the verdict is not reassessed in her favor.

The national attention has largely receded since then, though both Hawn and Jones are still carrying on their battles.

“A lot of people have been very supportive of me and they’ve reached out, but it’s not the same as it was a year ago or a year and a half ago,” said Hawn. “But this is still very present in my life.”

That’s why Hawn contacted Jones after hearing her story on a podcast, to let her know she can talk to him about their shared experiences.

Both Hawn and Jones will have to wait well into next year to receive decisions on their respective cases.

But they both said they never considered not standing up for what they believe in, because they believe it’s their responsibility to defend honest history lessons and students’ access to books.

“I think that’s the burden that you and I carry is, for some reason, we are being vocal and standing up for what we believe in, or standing up for our students because they’re the ones that suffer at the end of the day,” Hawn said to Jones during the Zoom conversation with Education Week.

Jones said she and Hawn have been made to be examples by conservative activists “so that the rest of the people who are on the fence that were thinking about speaking out suddenly won’t speak out anymore.”

“It’s a very effective strategy on their part,” added Jones, who is currently on medical leave from her job as a public school librarian.

Amanda Jones, a librarian in Livingston Parish, La., pictured on Sept. 13, 2022. Jones is suing members of a Facebook group who harassed her virtually after she spoke against censorship in a public library meeting. Jones received angry emails and even a death threat from people across the country after she filed the lawsuit.

The fight has broadened in scope

When Hawn was fired, in May 2021, he was one of the only people across the country to face early backlash from the movement against “critical race theory,” an academic theory whose name was misused by Republican lawmakers and parents complaining about lessons in school on race and racism. (Critical race theory argues that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.)

Tennessee was one of the earliest states to pass a law banning the teaching of divisive concepts, such as the idea that anyone should feel guilt or anguish because of their race and that anyone is inherently racist.

But since then, “the battle has gotten wider, and teachers are spread more thin,” Hawn said, as the ideological debates expanded to several fronts.

Social studies teacher Matthew Hawn is accused of insubordination and repeated unprofessional conduct for sharing Kyla Jenèe Lacey's, 'White Privilege', poem with his Contemporary Issues class. Hawn's appeal continued August 17, 2021 at the Sullivan County Department of Education in Blountsville, Tenn.

The fight against lessons about race has morphed into book bans and anti-LGBTQ policies. Sixteen other states have banned teaching about divisive concepts, and several have imposed restrictions on LGBTQ students’ rights in schools.

When Jones faced online harassment for making her speech, book bans were already happening across the country. This meant that she was able to gather support from her library association colleagues and join groups already engaged in fighting book bans.

Recently, she realized that some of the same, far-right groups of people are advocating for censorship, restrictions on LGBTQ rights, and lessons on race. She and Hawn were part of a similar battle.

“People that aren’t extremists are starting to see what’s happening,” Jones said. “They are starting to realize that it’s not really about [Critical Race Theory], and it’s not really about the LGBTQ community. These are all smokescreens for privatizing education, privatizing libraries.”

Both Jones and Hawn, however, have drawn hope from former students, many now in their 20s and 30s, who have been consistently supportive.

“They see what’s happening. And they see how it’s affecting their education, too,” Hawn said. “And I think they’re going to be the ones to save us.”

An education in privilege

In their Zoom conversation with Education Week this month, Hawn told Jones that he has come to see the role his own privilege plays in the controversies that both educators have endured. “I understand that being a white male, I’ve enjoyed a certain amount of privilege in this situation, because of some of the things that people have said to you,” he told Jones. “Over the course of this year I’ve gotten a very good education in privilege.”

Hawn received a handful of comments from critics over social media, he said, but nothing compared to what Jones had to go through.

“I’ve learned some things about privilege, too,” Jones responded.

When she was talking to a group of transgender women on a speaking engagement, she realized that this period of online vitriol will pass for her, but some of her listeners might have to live their whole lives dealing with hatred.

“I thought about the mental toll it takes or it’s taken on me, and I have a supportive family,” she said. “Some of the women I was speaking to do not have supportive families.”

“Some of them were trans women of color, and they’ve gotten the slurs,” she added."And I realized how privileged I am.“

Amanda Jones, 44, got a tattoo that says "moxie" after Newbury Award winning author Erin Entrada Kelly used the term to describe Jones and her legal battle against conservative activists.

Jones also said she was glad some of the people who spoke at the same meeting where she opposed censorship did not become targets, because they were either newer teachers or sexual assault survivors. As a librarian of the year, she had connections and name recognition that helped her gather support from the professional community, she said.

“When you’re given a platform you have to do something with it, or you’re letting everyone else down,” Jones said.

Hawn concurred. “I could resign at any time. I could end this whole thing and just call them up and say, ‘no, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ but it’ll fall to somebody else,” he said. “So if I have the ability to make a difference, and keep someone else from experiencing this, then it’ll be worth it. ”

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