A story I’ve heard many times in the last several years goes something like this: “Progressives used to be edgy and countercultural. Conservatives used to be all about conformity and censorship. But now the roles have switched!”
Sometimes this story is told by conservatives themselves. Sometimes it’s told by someone who either denies they have a political ideology or starts their self-description with “I’m a liberal, but . . .”
The part of the story that’s true is that many progressives have shortsighted views about, for example, censorship on social media platforms. There’s plenty to criticize there. But any suggestion that the Right has seen the light on the importance of free expression is a bad joke.
Right now in Oklahoma, the state’s secretary of education is publicly advocating that high school English teacher Summer Boismier lose her teaching license for bringing a “liberal political agenda” into her classroom. Boismier is already out of a job, but the secretary of education thinks she needs to be punished further. Some grassroots reactionaries have deluged her with messages about killing her or sterilizing her so she “can’t breed.”
Her crime was helping her students apply for library cards so they could read banned books.
Freedom to Read
The American Library Association (ALA)’s Freedom to Read Statement highlights several sources of persistent threats to the free flow of information — specifically including attempts to “censor content in schools.” The ALA’s statement, first adopted during the McCarthy era and updated several times over the course of the last seventy years, strongly affirms the importance of making available material that may be “unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.”
The Brooklyn Public Library cited this as an inspiration when it announced its Books Unbanned initiative. Aiming to help teens access banned books, the initiative includes a link to report attempts to take books off the shelf, one where teens can get help finding frequently banned books at their local public library, and one where anyone aged thirteen to thirty-one can get a free Brooklyn Public Library card, allowing them access to the library’s full collection of e-books — even if they live in, for example, Norman, Oklahoma, where Boismier taught high school tenth-grade English until last month.
Arriving in class, her students were “greeted by red paper signs announcing the ‘books the state doesn’t want you to read’ accompanied by the QR code for the Brooklyn Public Library’s sign-up page.” That’s it. Her whole offense was referring to the existence of censorship and giving students a chance to check out any books they like by . . . getting a borrowing card at a public library.
Summer Boismier vs. HB 1775
The line about “books the state doesn’t want you to read” was a reference to House Bill 1775, Oklahoma’s contribution to the national panic about the alleged plague of “critical race theory” in K-12 public schools. In the usual fashion of such bills, it bars a series of “concepts” from Oklahoma classrooms, most of which are defined in a hopelessly vague fashion designed to keep everyone guessing about what could be held to violate it. Norman schools issued guidance for teachers to “review all texts” to make sure they comply with the law.
The original wording of the bill doesn’t include the word “book,” although the HB 1775 Emergency Rules available on Oklahoma’s state government website ominously include “librarians” among the school employees who can lose their jobs if they’re held to have violated the law. In any case, any doubt about whether Boismier was right to suspect that the law could be used to ban books was immediately removed when she was suspended from her job, under suspicion of violating HB 1775, for — again, this is really all she did — telling her students about banned books and giving them a link where they could apply for a library card.
After meeting with administrators to discuss her suspension, Boismier concluded that she wouldn’t be able to return to her job if she wasn’t willing to refrain from doing things like helping her students get library cards in the future. She resigned after nine years on the job.
At this point, you’d think, the censors would be happy. They got what they wanted. The dangerous library-card-promoter was out of the classroom. Instead, they started a larger campaign to demonize her.
The state’s secretary of education, Ryan Walters, has displayed a particularly unhinged obsession with her case. As of the time of this writing, almost everything he’s tweeted going back for more than two weeks is about Boismier. He’s posted a video of himself sitting in his car ranting about Boismier. He’s posted accusations that she wanted to “indoctrinate” her students with left-wing ideas. He’s accused her of trying to “sexualize” her classroom by sharing “pornographic” materials — since some of the books banned elsewhere that students can digitally check out of the Brooklyn Public Library include (generally pretty light) sexual content. He’s called again and again for her license to be revoked so she can never get another teaching job.
Even that might not be enough for some of Walters’s grassroots supporters. Boismier has told local authorities that she’s afraid to stay in her apartment because she’s been doxed and threats have been sent to her in social media messages.
There are a lot of things you can say about a political movement that gets this furious about an English teacher helping her students check banned books out of the library. But you certainly can’t say it values free speech.