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Equity & Diversity Commentary

Free Speech Is Under Attack in the Government. Are Schools Next?

By Gloria Ladson-billings — December 18, 2017 4 min read

Many years ago when I was teaching middle grade students, I had a daily activity I called ‘banned word of the day.’ I used words such as “interesting,” “like,” “nice,” and, “cool.” I would write the word on the chalkboard, draw a circle around the word, and draw a line through it. Doing that signaled to my students that they could not use that word that day. I was tired of reading book reports that described each and every book as “interesting” and wanted to push my students to expand their vocabularies. The students made a game out of the activity and listened carefully to each other, waiting for someone to slip up. Several times a day I would hear someone shout out, “Oooh, Mrs. Billings, she said ‘interesting.’” The students and I had a great time with these banned words of the day.

However, one day one of my bright students in the urban school in which I taught said, “Mrs. Billings I don’t think ‘banned word of the day’ is right.” When I asked why, he replied, “You’re teaching us U.S. history and all about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and I think ‘banned word of the day’ is a violation of my right of free speech!” His statement produced a big smile on my face. Here was a student who was actually putting school knowledge to practical use. He was right. As much as I would like for students to use more expressive and expansive vocabularies, they had a right to use any words in school, as long as they were not obscene, racist, sexist, or homophobic.

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Now, we learn that the Trump administration is considering banning certain words. According to The Washington Post, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been prohibited by the current administration from using a list of words in any of its official budgetary documents for the coming year. Those words are “diversity,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” “science-based,” and “entitlement.” This choice of banned words reflects, not an attempt to expand the officials’ vocabularies, but rather an attempt to choreograph the science and funding landscape to prohibit certain types of research. If you cannot say “diversity,” then how can you fund projects focused on diversity?

Similarly, projects on transgender and other “vulnerable” populations (including children, the poor, or the incarcerated) or women’s reproductive rights are also in jeopardy.

While this ban is specific to the CDC, it is not likely to remain there. Specifically, we might speculate that state curricula, course guides, and textbooks could soon follow the government’s lead and drop these words from their documents. In the 1970s, for example, we saw a shut down of federal curriculum projects after a backlash led by an Arizonan congressman against the controversial “Man: A Course of Study” social studies program.

Schools are not places that set trends; they are places that follow them. If certain things are declared off limits for discussion, how will we help our students make sense of them? If we cannot talk about diversity, how can we promote it as a desired value? Without mentioning the word, how do we discuss transgender people who our students may know and love?

This choice of banned words reflects...an attempt to choreograph the science and funding landscape to prohibit certain types of research."

For more than a decade, schools have been told that they must employ evidence-based approaches to student achievement. Instead of relying solely on teacher judgment, teachers and principals were warned that they needed to use the science of measurement to determine whether students were succeeding in schools. Now, one of our scientific agencies is being told it cannot verify its results and conclusions with scientific evidence.

Pronouncements like these reverberate throughout the society. Just as people are now describing anything with which they disagree as “fake news,” these seven words and phrases could be dismissed by the government as illegitimate and unworthy of uttering. When parents of particular political persuasions hear these words coming from their children’s schools and classrooms they will complain and demand that they be removed from the curriculum.

The policing of speech is already beginning on college and university campuses. Faculty members are being targeted for expressing ideas and concepts seen as “leftist,” “socialist,” and “anti-government.” School classrooms are narrowing the scope of political and controversial discourse. Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of education and the co-author of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, has publicly recounted stories from teachers who have been frustrated their students will refuse to even read certain publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post because of their perceived status as “fake news.”

More than a generation ago the country was embroiled in something known as McCarthyism. People were afraid to say certain things or associate with certain people for fear of being branded “communists.” The banning of words by the CDC comes dangerously close to replicating that era. And, as my student pointed out many decades ago, it is a violation of our right of free speech.

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