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Guest editorial

GUEST EDITORIAL: Banning ideas is unconstitutional

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Dred Scott

This photograph of an oil painting shows Dred Scott after 1857. Scott's lawsuit, seeking freedom from slavery, was the basis of an infamous Supreme Court decision in 1857, ruling that people of African descent were not meant in the Constitution to be included as U.S. citizens.

As we celebrate this July Fourth while still tentatively emerging from the worst throes of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s hard not to feel the weight of this year’s challenges. Foundational elements of the American experiment have been questioned from multiple directions. Rightly, the murder of George Floyd reignited a conversation about a myth of a nation built on the idea that “all men are created equal.” Wrongly, the former president and his Republican backers attempted to delegitimize the American electoral process by pushing the Big Lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

An extremely concerning development is the use of laws prohibiting speech in an attempt to end debates. Numerous state legislatures across the country, including Pennsylvania’s, have introduced bills to ban the teaching of critical race theory, a decades-old academic philosophy that explores the intersections of white supremacy with power structures in American society.

Put more succinctly, these bills seek to ban ideas.

As an editorial board and opinion department, we understand how hard it is to engage with perspectives that you disagree with, or that you see as hateful or immoral. We experience this daily, as we elevate pieces from a wide variety of perspectives, some of which this board agrees with and some we don’t. We do this because being exposed to ideas that are different from our own is a fundamental part of American democracy.

In June, Pennsylvania joined 25 other states where lawmakers introduced a bill banning teaching of critical race theory, often conflating it with broader discussions of racism in America. The Republican bill prohibits any public school or college from teaching, hosting a speaker, or assigning a reading that promotes any “racist or sexist concept” — or risk losing funding. Of course, “racist or sexist concept” is extremely broad language in a manner that seems to include, for example, a reading about affirmative action. The bill also explicitly bans discussion of the idea that, “The United States of America or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is fundamentally racist or sexist.”

The bill, arguably a violation of the First Amendment, should be taken as a serious threat. In nine states measures restricting how race or gender is discussed in schools have already been signed into law.

What is most troubling about this legislation is that it is precisely the opposite of what our forefathers risked their lives to enshrine in our nation’s founding documents. Our Founders so valued the importance of airing ideas — even controversial ones — that they spelled out their protection in the First Amendment.

The ability to freely discuss and debate ideas is part of what allows America, even with all our flaws, to continue and improve itself: from abolitionists to suffragettes to freedom riders, all of whom expressed speech that was extremely unpopular at its time, but ultimately pushed America to be better.

Being exposed to ideas you disagree with — or find abhorrent — is a right, and an American privilege. Just days ago, Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper was shut down and journalists were arrested, as Chinese government leaders attempt to quash dissent.

This board has criticized institutions, from the police to the Mummers, as racist and believes that exploring the systemic racism in our nation — today and during its founding — is part of a well-rounded education. But even if we disagreed with the content of critical race theory and related ideas, we’d still encourage them, because grappling with ideas you disagree with is healthy. Engaging in a vigorous exchange of ideas can strengthen our own views, or lead us to accept new ones. That’s a lesson worth teaching everyone in America.

Our forefathers lived in revolutionary times, and perhaps they could not have envisioned the polarization today. But we, too, are living in a revolutionary time. In Philadelphia and across the country, we saw a brave and fervent uprising in 2020, born of hundreds of years of anger over systemic racism in policing. The result has not yet been a new or perfect nation, but changes are happening, ones we would not have seen without the protected free speech of the millions who raised their voices on the streets last June.

Allowing Americans to debate and air a plethora of ideas — including critical race theory — is central to what the men (of course they were all men) who founded our great nation envisioned, on July Fourth and every day.

This editorial was first published July 4 in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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