Three minutes and the truth
I spoke against teacher censorship in the South Carolina legislature. Will it matter?
Before sunrise Wednesday morning, I kissed my wife and kids goodbye and began driving halfway across South Carolina. I had taken the day off work and made arrangements with my family. For the first time in my life, I was going to testify in front of state legislators in Columbia.
The subject of my testimony was House Bill 3728, a teacher censorship bill not unlike the one Republicans have probably introduced in your state, wherever you are reading this in the U.S. today. It includes a long but vague list of “prohibited concepts” centered around race, history, and gender; it threatens teachers with the loss of their jobs and school districts with the loss of 5% of their state funding; and it would open the floodgate for lawsuits against schools by self-appointed right-wing speech police.
As I listened to death metal and sipped black coffee from my thermos on I-26 Wednesday morning, I thought about what I should say. Like anyone who has watched the South Carolina General Assembly mismanage, neglect, and defund our schools, I found it hard to summon anything but rage. I needed to be strategic with my words, even though a string of expletives would have felt better.
The bill in question had already passed the House of Representatives with a strong showing of support from the South Carolina Freedom Caucus, a hard-right faction within the state Republican Party. The Caucus’ vice chair, one R.J. May III, recently appeared on local news station WLTX to claim this bill as a key early victory for his group.
In a state where Republicans command a trifecta of power in the House, Senate, and governor’s mansion, we have become keen observers of the rifts and factions in the ruling party. The Freedom Caucus has opened one such rift this year with its antics, perhaps most infamously when Rep. May derailed a bill declaring “Women in Hunting and Fishing Awareness Day” by trying to insert a biological definition of “women” in the bill.
I found my way to the Gressette Building, a low brutalist office tower on the Capitol Complex. By the time I was seated in a conference room with the Senate Education Subcommittee, I had decided on my angle.
This is what I said in my allotted three minutes:
I am a parent of three public school students in Charleston County, and I oppose House Bill 3728. My remarks today are addressed to the Republicans in this room and in the Senate.
What you have before you is a teacher censorship bill, in large part written and promulgated by an aggrieved partisan wing within your own party calling itself the South Carolina Freedom Caucus. They are a national embarrassment to your party, and if you pass this bill you are delivering them an early and crucial victory while lending them the institutional legitimacy of their host party — your party.
I know better by now than to assume I share common values with my neighbors, but I am going to try appealing today to the value of freedom, actual freedom, and not as the Freedom Caucus would seek to redefine it. I’m asking you to defend free inquiry by students and the freedom of teachers to hold open and honest classroom discussions about current events. Defend us from speech codes written by the “Freedom Caucus,” and do not hand them the power to sue and de-fund school districts into oblivion while intimidating teachers and chasing them out of the profession.
I know it is not news to you that our schools are beyond the point of crisis because so many teachers have departed the profession in the last decade. Many of those teachers were my friends, neighbors, family members, and teachers of my children. Their complaints are myriad and righteous: low pay, a lack of autonomy, a mountain of paperwork, a lack of respect for the profession from the local school board all the way up to the Statehouse chambers.
I have heard them lament the state of the schools and resign in agony from the work that they loved and believed they were put on this earth to do. But do you know what none of them ever said to me? None of them ever said, “Boy, I wish there were restrictions on my speech and on what books my students could borrow from the library. I wish my district office had an added layer of bureaucracy to monitor and punish me. I wish there was an array of moneyed interests waiting outside my classroom to vilify me, to sue me, and to have me fired for speaking the truth.”
This bill is not merely a solution in search of a problem. It is a problem unto itself, in a state that does not lack for problems. I ask you in the name of freedom, real freedom: Kill this bill before you kill our schools.
I am grateful that I got the chance to speak; a friend of a friend who couldn’t make it yielded her time to me. I hope my words were not in vain.
In all, 23 speakers spoke against the teacher censorship bill. None spoke in favor of it. As I listened, I thought about the sheer effort it took for everyone to arrive in this conference room. Three high school students and a chaperone drove up from Beaufort County. Two veteran teachers from Greenville County in the Upstate took the day to testify, and my friend the educator AJ Davis drove up from Charleston County. The president of the Pickens County Branch NAACP shared her painful experiences growing up in segregated schools and implored the subcommittee not to censor uncomfortable history. These busy, brilliant people rearranged their entire day to speak for three minutes apiece.
The Senate Education Subcommittee took no action on the teacher censorship bill, possibly because some of its members were tied up in another hearing booked at the same time. Elsewhere in the Gressette Building Wednesday morning, a subcommittee of the Senate Medical Affairs Committee was hearing testimony on Senate Bills 627 and 623, a pair of bills that would ban access to gender-affirming healthcare for children under 18 and affirm a medical affidavit requirement to change gender identification on birth certificates.
Most of my friends wearing trans pride ribbons to that hearing didn’t get a chance to speak. The committee did hear from experts including a pediatrician who told them what they were proposing was medically reckless and actively harmful. No experts spoke in favor of the bills. The subcommittee voted 4-3 along party lines to advance the bills anyway.
Somebody said once that voting is like praying to a god who hates you. On my more cynical days I believe it. We can’t vote any harder, and we don’t get credit for eloquence when our arguments fall on deaf ears. The long-term solution to our problems is mass organizing and building collective worker power. It’s daunting, but there is no other way.
I don’t know if my words on Wednesday morning amounted to anything. The Republicans on the subcommittee perked up when I mentioned the fate of their party, but I don’t know — can’t know — what they took away from our encounter.
After the hearings, out in the crisp cold daylight on the Statehouse lawn, I met people who had traveled from across the state to oppose these latest attacks. Organizers with ProTruth SC and South Carolina United for Justice & Equality had set up a microphone for people who hadn’t gotten a chance to address the subcommittees. They spoke about the joy of being their authentic selves and the pain of being scorned and attacked by our most powerful public leaders.
Around midday, Marcus McDonald from Charleston Black Lives Matter climbed the Statehouse steps to bless us with a song. I’d seen him play the trombone before, including at July 2021 protests where he kept us marching to a beat until Charleston police arrested him and threw his instrument on the ground.
On Wednesday, he faced the crowd and improvised something lyrical. A cool wind blew by, and the crowd grew quiet.
I don’t know if our words are all in vain. I have pessimism of the intellect down pat, but I am still learning optimism of the will. I am glad that I went.
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