Panelists: Critical Race Theory an issue of the First Amendment

Photos by Alex Ruble

By Emily Perry

MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – With more than 35 states taking steps to ban or otherwise censor classroom discussions of topics like race and gender identity, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression is in crisis in public schools.

This was one of the takeaways from a panel discussion at Berry College this month titled, “De-stigmatizing Critical Race Theory: A Celebration of the First Amendment.” Organized by the students of the Media Law course in the Department of Communication, the panel also addressed how CRT became another issue and weapon in the culture war that is polarizing political discourse.

Bans on discussion of topics that could lead to “discomfort” include Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, which was body-slammed by a federal judge last week. The Act seeks to prohibit teaching and training in public schools, colleges and universities, and workplaces on topics such as race and gender for fear.

Citing a violation of the First Amendment protection of free speech, the Chief U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker blocked state officials in Florida from enforcing what he called a “positively dystopian” policy restricting how lessons on race and gender can be taught.

“I’m sorry, but history is often uncomfortable,” said Jordan Hubbard, one of the three panelists and an instructor of political science and history at Georgia Highlands College and Georgia Northwestern Technical College. “Learning is often uncomfortable. When we think about suppressing these conversations and this teaching and learning in the name of discomfort, we need to ask whose discomfort is being prioritized.”

One of the first questions the panelists addressed concerned defining CRT and determining whether it is, in fact, being taught in public schools at all.

CRT was born out of legal studies and examines racism as a systemic issue and how it affects and maintains social, economic and political inequalities. According to the Shinjini Chattopadhyay, an assistant professor of English, rhetoric and writing at Berry, CRT is part of a broader theory called critical theory that looks at power dynamics and attempts to deconstruct them.

Other theories under the critical theory umbrella include feminist theory, queer theory postcolonialism, AsianCRT, LatinXCrit and several others. CRT as a term was coined by lawyers and scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell, and it is used by scholars across many academic disciplines at the university level.

CRT is not being taught in public schools, said panelist Kelsey Rice, an assistant professor of history at Berry.

“You wouldn’t encounter it outside of a graduate level course in either law school or some of the social sciences,” she said. “Banning CRT in high school is kind of like banning organic chemistry. That’s fine, you can ban it, but they weren’t going to teach it anyway.” 

Related to the discussion of CRT was the topic of where people get their news and information and how they determine its credibility. Panelists urged students to exercise care because of the sheer volume and algorithmic gaming of misinformation and disinformation.

“With our food, we like it to be farm-to-table,” said Brian Carroll, instructor of the Media Law course and moderator of the panel discussion. “We don’t like processed food. Well, on the news and information side, we don’t seem to care how processed it all is. We need farm-to-table journalism, community journalism, local journalism. What we get is whatever TikTok or Facebook feed us. It’s not good for us. It’s not good for a self-governing democracy.”

Hubbard tied the two topics together by linking deficits of reliable information and robust, honest education to policy-making. He cited recent voter suppression laws, such as those governing absentee ballots, and gerrymandering party-favorable election districts.

“We [as a society] do better because you are educated,” Hubbard said. “Directly, you are impacted but, indirectly, we do better because you are thinking critically.”

Questions from the overflow crowd on hand in Krannert’s Spruill Ballroom included how to discuss CRT with family members who watch Fox News, and what panelists think college students should do to affect the discourse and debate on CRT.

“The First Amendment has no grandchildren,” said Carroll, a First Amendment scholar. “What those 45 words mean have to be determined and negotiation by each and every succeeding generation. Do not leave it up to partisan actors to decide or determine its limits, because your First Amendment freedoms are only as strong as those of the people with whom you disagree. It’s freedom for the thought we hate.”


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