By Mikayla Arciaga, M.A.Ed. • Knowledge is Power • December 15, 2021 •

Some policymakers are organizing their classroom censorship drives on another front by calling for legislation that would “protect” children and young people from “obscene materials” in the learning environment.

At face value this seems like an obvious win – no one wants students to experience obscenity at school. Unfortunately, the use of the word “obscene” is intentionally coded language that has historically conflated “pornography” with non-obscene educational materials about gender and sexual identity.

U.S. policymakers have used “obscenity” as an excuse to censor schools as far back as 1953 during the Cold War and the social emphasis on conformity. Most recently, it has been used to censor the inclusion of texts or materials that might educate students about same-sex relationships or the gender identity spectrum.

As with other forms of classroom censorship, these efforts predominantly serve to disrupt learning, diminish the experiences of historically marginalized students, and distract from real issues that impact students and schools. Despite this, legislative efforts have already been initiated this year by policy leaders in Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Texas to censor schools and particularly libraries. These states and others have launched investigations, distributed obscene or banned book lists and, more distressingly, threatened educators with litigation for providing such materials.

This is where the real threat lies. The fear of retaliation can create a chilling effect, leading teachers to self-censor. This in turn obstructs students from the exposure to broader perspectives that equips them to navigate an increasingly diversified world – exposure they may otherwise never experience. Additionally, censorship is associated with negative mental health symptoms, with disproportionate harm caused to our most marginalized young people, including queer students and students of color.

Because we know the harms of censoring learning, school leaders should take this opportunity not to ban books, but to create contemporary community standards that reinforce culturally sustaining school communities. These practices can protect educators, while also making our schools safer, more engaging places for all of our students.

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the December 215, 2021, edition of Knowledge is Power by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]