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Wave of Bills Banning Topics in US Schools Threatens Human Rights and Free Knowledge

US bills banning LGBTQ+ and other identity-related topics in schools violate children’s human rights and threaten access to knowledge. Free knowledge projects like Wikipedia can help.

Image of a protest sign that reads “Knowledge is power!”
Image from Flickr taken by LAZYOWL (CC BY 2.0).

Written by Wikimedia Foundation’s Richard Gaines, Senior Human Rights Advocacy Manager.

Before the internet, search engines, and Wikipedia, generations of children sought out knowledge in their school libraries. These sanctuaries of knowledge provided refuge for youth to satiate their curiosities, and to learn about the world around them and themselves. However, a series of bills are currently stifling curiosity and exploration in school districts across the United States. Misguided efforts at the state level to erase entire topics from schools, including sexual orientation, gender identity and inequities, race and racial prejudice, limit what knowledge children can access, and can harm their sense of dignity and safety as a result. Youth are listening when state leaders, school administrators, and teachers tell them that these issues — at the very core of many of their identities — are inappropriate for school and, by extension, society. Free knowledge projects like Wikipedia, however, can help students fill this information gap, realize children’s rights to expression, safety, and dignity, and allow them to reach their greatest potential.

A Wave of Bills in Various US states

A recent example of this kind of legislation, Florida House Bill 1557, was signed into law on 28 March 2022. Critically labelled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the law effectively prevents public schools from teaching or even answering questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in primary and secondary education. In Georgia, Senate Bill 613 would extend similar restrictions to private schools. These laws would compel teachers and school staff to remove any books, magazines, multimedia, or other resources that mention LGBTQ+ topics. Many schools already use internet censorship tools to filter what students see on their networks and devices. Due to their overly broad scope, these tools have previously filtered out resources to LGBTQ+ students and blocked access to educational materials for all students. Compliance with these new laws would likely ensure that LGBTQ+ content is among the topics filtered. Many Wikipedia pages containing accurate and informative information on LGBTQ+ issues and people could become inaccessible to students seeking information at school or on a school-provided device. Furthermore, these bans open teachers to legal liability, including losing their jobs, for addressing or simply answering student questions about these topics. These harsh penalties incentivize the suppression of knowledge.

The bills banning discussion of LGBTQ+ topics are part of a broader movement in the United States to prevent teaching about other issues such as race and racial identity, and the violence suffered by marginalized communities. For example, in Mississippi, Senate Bill 2113 became law on 14 March 2022. Its supporters spoke of the bill as prohibiting the teaching of “critical race theory,” which is an academic approach to examine how social structures maintain racial disparities, regardless of the racism of any individual in that society. Yet, the Mississippi law has nothing to do with critical race theory. Instead, like many other such laws introduced in more than 30 states between January and March 2022, the law broadly discourages instructing children from a neutral point of view on topics such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. In practice, such laws have caused widespread confusion: a similar bill in Texas led educators to wonder whether they needed to teach an “opposing” perspective on the Holocaust. These bills have proven so difficult to interpret that teachers and civil rights groups in Oklahoma are challenging one such law in court, arguing that it violates the First Amendment to the US Constitution by banning inclusive education.

A Global Phenomenon

These laws are nothing new. Governments have enacted bills that stigmatize and restrict access to information about marginalized identities as key tools to exert ideological control over public information and restrict freedom of expression more broadly. In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a bill critically labelled the “gay propaganda” law, which forbids sharing any information about LGBTQ+ issues with youth in any context, including online. Human Rights Watch warned that the law intensified preexisting hostilities towards this community, and “had a stifling effect on access to affirming education and support services, with harmful consequences for LGBT youth.” Despite these warnings, the Hungarian parliament under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán approved a law similar to the Russian one in 2021. Certain governments and political parties might take notice and look to Russia, Hungary, and now the US to model legislation that similarly increases the threat to knowledge, both offline and online, and to youth, globally.

As observed in Russia, eliminating access to knowledge on these topics can create real and lasting harm. Medical research indicates that LGBTQ+ youth often face challenges because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity that their heterosexual and cisgender peers do not, and therefore suffer from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation more frequently and in higher numbers. These bills can cut off already vulnerable queer youth from safe forms of information and support, which in turn can intensify feelings of shame and fear, generally the result of internalizing the cultural homophobia and transphobia that underlies many of these bans.

Similarly, these bills can make students of color feel silenced from speaking about their lived experiences as members of marginalized groups, and make their classrooms less likely to acknowledge and address the hardships and dangers that they face. Disparities in treatment based on race already exist in classrooms, with evidence showing that children of color are disciplined disproportionately, receiving harsher punishments for the same behavior than their White counterparts. Censoring information about the harm done to marginalized communities might allow those who are privileged enough to not have to think about race to continue not doing so, but can also create further inequities in schools and in culture at large. Furthermore, censorship prevents educational opportunities for all children to learn to appreciate the value of the diversity of the world around them: a diversity which is directly reflected in their teachers, peers, and broader community.

Such Bills Are Inconsistent with Human Rights and Wikimedia’s Values

The effect of bills silencing any discussions on racial identity or prejudice are inconsistent with the spirit of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes that “Education […] shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups[.]” Schools, which should be a place of learning and exploring for children, are increasingly becoming subject to censorship. Importantly, the right of all students to free expression — which includes the right to seek, receive, and impart knowledge — will be violated by bills that censor information and educators without basis. The UN Convention on the Right of the Child, an important standard in customary international law, provides that this right only be restricted when necessary “(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; or (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.” These restrictions have no such justification in the US. Instead, these bills demonstrate precisely why free expression is a fundamental human right, acknowledged by the UN, and enshrined in the Wikimedia Foundation’s human rights policy. Restricting access to knowledge on LGBTQ+ people and racial history will also violate many children’s inherent rights to dignity and safety by not acknowledging their very existence and contributing to harassment and bullying.

Importantly for Wikimedians, these laws also contradict our community’s values. Our movement is committed to presenting topics fairly, accurately, and neutrally. When lawmakers ban discussing entire communities and perspectives, they are putting their thumb on the scale of history and trying to dictate what children can be educated on to form their own opinions, both about the world around them and themselves. That is why free knowledge projects like Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects are already working to fill the gap on LGBTQ+ information, racial history, gender discrimination, and all other banned topics, all while remaining accessible to youth. Wikimedians have formed a vibrant community to author inclusive and accurate content on LGBTQ+ history. Other such communities create and maintain content on the history of racism, gender inequality, and other topics of interest.

Wikimedia fundamentally opposes any legislation or regulation that attempts to limit education and participation in knowledge. Wikimedia’s community-driven model, which places neutrality and fact over partisan points of view, ensures that the content on the Wikimedia projects is accurate and relevant. As long as children have access to the open internet, they will have access to knowledge on the topics that the bills discussed above seek to ban. On Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects, children from diverse backgrounds will find not only knowledge, but support, dignity, and community.

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