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Students and teachers spoke on gender and race classroom discussion bans in hearing

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Book bans and educational gag orders - those hot topics were the focus of a congressional hearing today in response to a wave of state laws that restrict classroom discussion of race and gender. NPR's Melissa Block reports.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: One of the most impassioned witnesses at today's hearing was a high school junior from Novi, Mich., Krisha Ramani, who urged the lawmakers to stop underestimating young people.

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KRISHA RAMANI: Gen Z has the capacity - and, more importantly, the willingness - to learn about the issues affecting us. We want to participate in these tough conversations. We want to read about the diverse perspectives affecting us. And efforts to regulate what can be taught in the classroom is an insult to young people's ability to understand nuanced arguments.

BLOCK: Also testifying before the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties was the mother of a nonbinary middle-schooler worried about Florida's so-called don't say gay law; an African American high school principal from Texas who lost his job after he was accused of promoting critical race theory; and Willy Carver, a gay teacher from Kentucky who described a climate of rising censorship and fear.

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WILLIE CARVER: Students now use anti-LGBTQ or racist slurs without consequence. Hatred is politically protected now. My Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA - a campus group dedicated to LGBTQ issues and safety - couldn't share an optional campus survey with classmates. I was told it might make straight students uncomfortable. When posters were torn from walls, my principal responded that people think LGBTQ advocacy is, quote, "being shoved down their throats."

BLOCK: Later, the committee's ranking Republican, Nancy Mace of South Carolina, put these questions to Mr. Carver.

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NANCY MACE: Do you believe that learning pronouns or learning to read is more important to kids in school?

CARVER: Pronouns are a part of reading.

MACE: Is - which one is more important, pronouns...

CARVER: Reading is more important.

MACE: ...Or learning to read? - just curious.

Do you believe that students should be suspended from school if they don't use the correct pronouns when they're in school?

BLOCK: According to Mace, school lesson plans are being, quote, "laced with divisive and radical ideologies." Our children's innocence should be protected, she said. Subcommittee chairman Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, called the wave of state laws an escalating assault on free speech and free thought, with a predictable chilling effect.

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JAMIE RASKIN: A grotesque effect of these censorship laws is that teachers cannot even discuss with students the actual self-proclaimed motivations of the Buffalo shooter or the falsehoods and racial animosity inherent in white replacement theory without fear of getting fired.

BLOCK: It was up to Yale history professor Timothy Snyder to provide a long view. He told the lawmakers that silencing so-called divisive concepts is a long-standing practice of totalitarian regimes.

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TIMOTHY SNYDER: We can't help but be struck by the fact that the banning of books and the attempt to limit classroom discussion to some kind of homogenized set of topics is a hallmark of the early stages of the end of democracy.

BLOCK: As Snyder explained, authoritarians know that to master the present and the future, they first have to master the past.

Melissa Block, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.