Open Letter to the School Board of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District
PEN America sent the following letter to the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District on January 11, 2022. We are reproducing the letter on PEN.org for the public.
To the School Board of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District,
I am writing on behalf of PEN America, the literary and rights advocacy group. Since 1922, PEN America has advocated against book banning and related forms of censorship. We are writing to urge you not to pass Resolution No. 21-12, “Resolution Opposing the Teaching of Critical Race Theory.” This resolution, if passed, will subject teaching and curricula to a political litmus test; encourage teachers to self-censor and to refrain from introducing their students to specific viewpoints, ideas, and even facts; lead to the banning of specific books or authors from the classroom; and restrict students’ abilities to participate in thoughtful conversations on race and racism in their lives.
PEN America has conducted a comprehensive analysis of resolutions like No. 21-12, as well as dozens of state-level and federal bills that similarly seek to ban specific ideas or concepts that proponents of these proposals have grouped under the vaguely-defined umbrella of “Critical Race Theory.” We released the results of our analysis in our November 2021 report Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn, and Teach. We concluded then that these types of regulations or bills are best understood as educational gag orders: they are designed to chill academic and educational discussions and impose restrictive dictates on teaching and learning.
We consider Resolution No. 21-12 to be one such educational gag order. As with other orders of this nature, it appears specifically designed to chill classroom conversations between teachers and learners, rather than to support the real aims of public education. Below we elaborate four ways that Resolution No. 21-12 threatens to foreseeably harm children’s education:
I. Resolution No. 21-12 threatens to impose content- and viewpoint-based censorship.
This Resolution opens the door for students, parents, and colleagues to accuse educators of “teaching Critical Race Theory” based on the introduction of certain ideas, arguments, viewpoints or resources that make any reference to systemic racism, or that involve race at all. While the Resolution currently declares that “nothing in this resolution shall be construed to restrict academic freedom or student speech,” this is the functional equivalent of declaring that water shall not be wet. By resolving that “Critical Race Theory” shall not be “included in any course offerings” the district would be declaring certain ideas or academic frameworks as ‘out-of-bounds’ for the classroom, inherently restricting the academic freedom and speech of both educators and students.
This Resolution will affect student speech in part because teachers and students are in constant dialogue—teachers will be placed under a special obligation to avoid seeming to ‘endorse’ the viewpoint of students who bring their own ideas or arguments about race and racism into the classroom, for fear of being accused of teaching “Critical Race Theory” and thus violating it.
This Resolution will also foreseeably silence teachers from sharing specific facts with their students. There is no way to draw a clear distinction between the facts that teachers offer in the classroom, and the implied conclusions that students may draw from these facts—meaning that a strict resolution not to include “Critical Race Theory” must also be understood as inhibiting the presentation of facts that may in any way relate to the broad concepts that the theory is seen to analyze—such as slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary racism.
II. Resolution No. 21-12 will have a chilling effect on teachers, pushing them to self-censor.
This Resolution currently offers no definition for what it attempts to ban. Even if the School Board adopts a definition for the term Critical Race Theory,” there is no way to define an entire field of study in a way that will not lead to substantial problems of vagueness, arbitrariness, and overbreadth. As a result, the Resolution will require educators to make constant judgment calls over whether a specific book, teaching, curricular resource, or teacher’s utterance constitutes “Critical Race Theory.” It is unclear how any educator should seek to implement such a ban in practice.
PEN America has monitored cases across the country where children’s books that discuss racism, feature non-white characters, or are written by non-white authors have been removed from school library or classroom shelves, swept up in efforts to ban “Critical Race Theory.” The implementation of this resolution in your district similarly threatens to greenlight discriminatory bans on books or curricular resources in the name of combating “Critical Race Theory.”
III. Resolution No. 21-12, by seeking to ban an intellectual framework, will inevitably lead to policing teachers’ and students’ thoughts and ideas.
In practice, the push to ban “Critical Race Theory” inevitably becomes an effort to ban any introduction of systemic critiques of race and racism in America from the classroom that may be influenced by, or even that may be perceived to be, Critical Race Theory. Resolutions of this type will inevitably lead to thought policing of American classrooms, with educators and public officials trying to track down ‘dangerous ideas’ and remove them from the classroom.
IV. Resolution No. 21-12 will restrict students’ ability to participate fully in conversations about race and racism later in life—including in the college classroom or workplace.
One of the primary obligations of education is to expose students to different ideas, viewpoints, and arguments, so that students are prepared to grapple honestly and thoughtfully with them in later settings. By shutting off students from even being exposed to a particular academic framework analyzing race and racism, ideological bans like the one proposed by this Resolution essentially guarantee that these students will be worse-equipped to engage in societal conversations about race and racism in their lives.
Resolution No. 21-12 is misguided and dangerous. It will needlessly subject children’s education to a political litmus test, chill the speech of both students and educators, contribute to a climate of self-censorship, and inhibit students from a full and unimpeded education on issues that touch upon race and racism in American history and society. We urge you not to advance this Resolution.
If you have any questions or would like us to elaborate on any of these points, we will happily respond.
Director, Free Expression and Education