REP. MARK LOWERY (file photo) Brian Chilson

Tyler Tidwell, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and an opinion writer for the Arkansas Traveler, offers his thoughts on House Bill 1218. The bill would limit free speech in public education.

With its 1968 decision in Tinker vs. Des Moines, the U.S. Supreme Court crafted one of its most famous quotes when it declared students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Advertisement

Moreover, the heart of the First Amendment shields political speech, and in the 1972 Supreme Court case Police Department of Chicago vs. Mosley, the Court doubled down, saying “the government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”

It’s unfortunate that Arkansas state Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) didn’t get the message.

Advertisement

Lowery has proposed House Bill 1218, which seeks to “Prohibit [the] offering of certain types of courses, classes, events, and activities that pertain to race, gender, political affiliation, social class, or particular classes of people.”

HB 1218 targets all public schools, including public school districts, open-enrollment public charter schools, and state-supported community and four-year colleges. In an unwavering fashion, this bill forbids classes and clubs that “promote division between, resentment of, or social justice” for a race, gender, political group, social class, or specific class of individuals.

Advertisement

The bill empowers the State Board of Education and attorney general to determine whether a public school district or state-sponsored university, respectively, has violated these anti-speech restrictions. And if a school or university continues to violate this law after a warning, that school will lose up to 10 percent of its state funding.

Protecting students’ feelings was his intent in crafting the bill, Lowery said. “The intention is — so that students, especially K-12 that are captive, are not subjected to humiliation in terms of trying to make a statement about whether there is inequality or inequity and that’s been happening in some of these programs using critical race theory.”

But educators aren’t having it.

Attorney and public school teacher Jeremy Nixon said this bill attacks students’ constitutional rights and “handcuff[s]” teachers by hampering their “instructional methods that focus on questioning, critical thinking, and debate.”

Advertisement

Political and controversial topics may be uncomfortable or stir unwelcome feelings for some students, but that does not mean we shouldn’t address them. In fact, the opposite is true. Students need more conversations, not fewer, about how to respect opposing opinions and civilly disagree.

Debate teams, Republican and Democratic clubs and social justice clubs deserve a promise that their interests and speech will receive the protections promised to them by the First Amendment. In a nation that has seen deep division, this bill begs the question how removal of speech will cure the problem?

Before the Constitution was officially ratified, James Madison, chief author of the Bill of Rights, said, “It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.” This experiment should sound the alarms,  and not only because of the threat of funding cuts. If they can withhold money, what else can they do?

The language of the bill is dangerously broad, and could be used to squelch vital lessons in American history. If a university provides a class focusing on discrimination against Muslim Americans after Sept. 11, 2001, will that violate HB 1218? It certainly seems possible.

Lowery’s bill threatens to push Arkansas down a slippery slope of censorship. What if legislators take issue with certain books? Will they require publicly funded libraries to remove them or face a penalty?

Arkansas legislators should reject this attack on our First Amendment rights.

Tidwell, a sophomore studying political science, is a Lakeside High School graduate from Hot Springs.