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While there is no equivalency between the laws passed in Russia criminalizing calling Russia’s war just that, a war, and what’s happening in Florida as the government there seeks to restrict speech, it’s striking nonetheless to see freedom of expression under assault in the United States.
We’ve spent a lot of time focused on Russia, but the controversy in Florida is worth considering.
What they’re passing in Florida
In their quest to become the party of “parental rights,” Republicans in Florida and in other states are attempting to muzzle discussion of gay and civil rights in school.
One bill that Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed – titled “Parental Rights in Education” – has been dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill because it seeks to ban discussion of gender and sexuality issues with younger students.
Another bill that passed Florida’s Senate recently would prohibit instruction that says certain races or sexes are privileged or oppressed. While the legislation doesn’t specifically mention critical race theory – an academic theory already banned in Florida that is mostly taught in colleges and graduate programs and that acknowledges that racism is systemic and institutional in American society – a bill analysis by state Senate staff highlights the teaching of critical race theory as something that would be prohibited, according to CNN’s Steve Contorno.
This new bill, however, is supposed to protect “individual freedom.” It would prohibit Florida’s public schools and private businesses from making people feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” based on their races, sexes or national origins.
Opponents say it is cruel
What has been dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was the subject of an intense opposition campaign.
The White House has called it cruel.
“It is certainly something that is not helping, you know, young people who are members of the LGBTQI+ community who are already vulnerable, already being bullied,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked about the Florida legislation in February.
The CEO of Disney – a major Florida employer – faced serious backlash after he initially refrained from criticizing the bill.
Don’t say ‘Don’t Say Gay’ to DeSantis
Earlier this month, DeSantis grew agitated at the Florida Strawberry Festival when a reporter asked him about the phrase – “Don’t Say Gay” – that critics have applied to the bill.
“Does it say that in the bill? Does it say that in the bill? I’m asking you to tell me what’s in the bill, because you are pushing false narratives,” DeSantis said. “It doesn’t matter what critics say.”
What does it say?
Here’s what the pertinent portion of the bill does say:
Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.
Here’s what supporters think it says
If that language seems vague, it is. But vague legislation can have massive consequences. The threat of lawsuits brought against school boards would certainly have a chilling effect on teachers and what they say in classrooms.
Activists on the left and right have filled in the blanks, with some making the case the bill discriminates against LGBT people.
Supporters of the bill say it’s innocuous, but they don’t think the bill is meaningless.
DeSantis’ spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, absurdly said on Twitter that the bill would protect kids from “grooming” and that opponents of the bill are “probably groomers,” using a slang term for pedophiles:
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”
It’s an old, tired and ridiculous argument that has been used to smear members of the LGBT community in previous debates over issues like same-sex marriage.
At the news conference where he challenged the reporter, DeSantis said the bill was about protecting kids.
“We’re going to make sure that parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum,” he said.
These fears are unfounded
CNN’s Brandon Tensley looked at this issue in his Race Deconstructed newsletter. (It’s good! Sign up here.)
He talked to the UC Berkeley philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler about how with both the “Parental Rights” and “Individual Freedom” bills, Republicans are tapping into parents’ fears.
“There’s a fantasy going on that children are being indoctrinated,” Butler told CNN. “Parents and communities want to exercise forms of censorship to stop their children from knowing about how the world is being organized and how different people are living their lives.”
150+ anti-LGBT proposals
A separate CNN analysis by Giselle Rhoden includes a map of more than 150 anti-LGBT bills introduced at the state level so far this legislative session. They range from restricting access to gender-affirming health care for minors to excluding transgender children from athletics. Some examples:
- A Georgia bill similar to Florida’s bill restricting discussion of LGBT topics.
- An Idaho bill that could punish medical personnel who provide gender-affirming health care and parents who agree for their children to receive such care with up to life in prison.
- A new executive order issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to launch child abuse investigations into parents seeking gender-affirming medical treatment for trans children.
- An Iowa ban on transgender women and girls taking part in girls’ sports at public schools.
- A Tennessee ban on any discussion, textbook or instructional materials on “LGBT issues or lifestyle” in public schools.
- An Oklahoma proposal to ban some public school libraries from keeping books about “the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or books that are of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it.”
All these proposals make it harder for certain Americans to be who they are, which is counter to the idea of parental rights or individual freedoms.
This story has been updated with additional details.