Melissa Tempel’s first-grade class at Heyer Elementary School in Waukesha County, Wisconsin has spent weeks preparing for its upcoming spring concert. The class was going to perform “Rainbowland,” a 2017 duet by Miley Cyrus and her godmother, Dolly Parton, with lyrics that advocate for inclusion. That is, until the school administration asked Tempel to remove “Rainbowland” from the concert.
In a statement, the Waukesha School District said the lyrics “could be deemed controversial” according to a school board policy on controversial issues in the classroom. A first-grade class singing “Rainbowland” is obviously not a cause for concern, but a school district that perceives inclusion as controversial is.
If this type of censorship sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen similar stories across the country. The censorship of racial and LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom has garnered national attention ever since Florida passed its notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law in 2022.
While classroom censorship in Wisconsin is not new, two recently introduced bills threaten to impose it here in a big way.
AJR 8/SJR 7: Classroom censorship referendum
During the 2021-22 legislative session, conservative Wisconsin lawmakers passed a classroom censorship bill that was ultimately vetoed by Governor Evers. This session, to bypass the veto pen, the same primary legislative authors have introduced joint resolution AJR 8/SJR 7, calling for an advisory referendum on whether school districts should be prohibited from teaching "that an individual by virtue of the individual's race or sex bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex?”
The fact is that American history has been shaped by exclusion, slavery and systems of oppression along racial lines, and the restriction described by this referendum would have a chilling effect on accurate education in Wisconsin schools. While America's troubled past and current racial disparities are certainly distressing, they do not become less so by whitewashing history. Instead, this prohibition only serves to rob young people of important opportunities to learn about and process the realities they face.
This referendum provides an illusion of democracy. Lawmakers have created so many mechanisms of voter suppression here in Wisconsin that any referendum will always fail to represent the true will of the people. More importantly for this conversation, the people who will be affected the most by this referendum – young people – won’t have the opportunity to vote on the issue.
We oppose the use of referenda to silence marginalized voices. In the early 2000s, voters in states across the country passed ballot measures that banned gay marriage through the same type of moral panic we see with the current wave of classroom censorship. Oppression is oppression even if voters advise it.
AB 15/SB 10: Censoring “harmful” material
Legislators have also introduced Assembly Bill 15/Senate Bill 10, which would require public libraries and public schools to limit student access to material deemed “harmful.” However, most banned books are not deemed “harmful” because they’re violent or pornographic, but because they challenge dominant hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality.
The stories of Black, Brown, and queer people are disproportionately targeted by book bans. According to the Pen’s America’s Index of School Book Bans report, 41% of the books banned in the US from July 2021 to June 2022 had an LGBTQIA+ characters or themes, 40% had a protagonist or secondary character in a racial minority, and 20% related to race and racism. Meanwhile, only 21% of the banned books contained sexual content.
The most challenged book in 2021 was Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe – not because of pornographic, hateful, or violent content that could be argued as “harmful” – but because it challenges the gender binary. When The Hate U Give is banned in schools and libraries across America, young people might be “protected” from the distress of reflecting on racism in our society, but children of color are not protected from the distress of being told that it’s dangerous to talk about their lived experiences. Books like these are dangerous to dominating power structures because they offer youth a chance to see different viewpoints and the wide variety of human experiences.
In school, young people conceptualize their understanding on race, sex, gender, and their own identity. When adults in their community actively restrict the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, it is hugely damaging for youth that do not fit within these confines, especially for queer kids of color. Censoring “harmful” material merely provides an excuse to ban books on gender and race, a move which will prove harmful to young people.
State legislatures, local governments, and reactionary school boards are engaged in a nationwide, coordinated campaign to censor what students learn in the classroom by banning books and shutting down discussions of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and an accurate recounting of American history. The mission of the classroom censorship movement has never been about protecting kids. It’s an entirely political project intent on the erasure and suppression of marginalized communities in schools.
We know that Nazi Germany burned books they deemed “dangerous” before turning that same logic into violence against people in the Holocaust, but the US has a history of similar tactics. From 17th century Puritan book burnings to The United Daughters of the Confederacy working to ban books challenging slavery, controlling books has historically been used to silence the voices and suffering of marginalized communities.
Stepping out of the classroom, we are seeing these state legislatures use the same tactics to attack other American constitutional rights.
Increasing threats to our rights
The advisory referendum proposal and bill introduced in the Wisconsin legislature are just pieces in a larger puzzle of state governments and groups attempting to censor views that challenge the status quo. Across America, discriminatory rhetoric has put freedom of speech, protest, and voting rights all under attack.
Since Gov. Desantis of Florida signed an anti-protest law in 2021, there have been at least 126 bills and laws nationwide with similar or exact language, including a bill recently passed by Wisconsin’s state Assembly.
In 2018, Florida passed a Modern-Day Poll Tax that required formerly incarcerated citizens to pay all their court debts before regaining their right to vote. The American Bar Association – the predominant professional organization for attorneys – estimated that this is keeping nearly a million Floridians from the polls. Just a few months ago, in February, 2023, Wisconsin introduced a bill that mirrored the Florida Poll Tax in an attempt to suppress formerly incarcerated citizens’ voting rights. Voter suppression efforts like these aren’t just happening in Florida and Wisconsin. According to the Brennan Center of Justice, state lawmakers in at least 32 states have pre-filed or introduced 150 restrictive voting bills.
Additionally, 32 bills have been filed in different states this year attacking drag shows in an attempt to suppress the freedom of speech and expression for LGBTQ+ people. In fact, more than 450 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced throughout the US during the 2023 legislative session, including heinous attacks on the rights of non-binary and trans people to access gender-affirming medical care.
The ACLU of Wisconsin understands that attempts to impose this extreme agenda on state and local levels fuel anti-democratic movements on the national level. These increasingly drastic measures to undermine our rights must be stopped – not just for the sake of individual states, but for the country writ large.
Check out this toolkit from the ACLU to take action against classroom censorship efforts in your own school.