Undoubtedly, the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections combined with the COVID-19 pandemic served as catalysts for a new wave of challenges to freedom of speech in online environments as well as in classrooms.
Former President Trump’s challenges to social media platforms’ suspension of his accounts pursuant to their own user guidelines, combined with social media platforms’ efforts to tag mis/disinformation related to the 2020 election’s legitimacy as well as COVID-19 (as matters of public health and safety), cause some to see these developments as infringing on the right to freedom of speech.
Similarly, parents, legislators, and partisan political players are causing educators to navigate new questions of free speech rights: for example, do students have the freedom from learning about diversity as a positive aspect of society, culture, and history? Do students’ religious beliefs exempt them from learning medically accurate information about gender and sexuality?
Ultimately, these arguments concern a person’s right to encounter (or not encounter) information with which that person disagrees, does not believe, or believes is harmful, based on personal religious beliefs or partisan values.
Tennessee bill SB 1229 was recently signed into law, which gives parents the right to opt a child out of any instruction 30 days prior which addresses a sexual orientation or gender identity curriculum, excluding historical references. Proposed bill HB 800 requires any textbooks or other instructional materials being adopted not “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” It goes further to claim that,
- textbooks and instructional materials and supplemental instructional materials that promote, normalize, support, or address controversial social issues, such as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) lifestyles are inappropriate;
- the promotion of LGBT issues and lifestyles in public schools offends a significant portion of students, parents, and Tennessee residents with Christian values;
- the promotion of LGBT issues and lifestyles should be subject to the same restrictions and limitations placed on the teaching of religion in public schools.
Anyone concerned about freedom will notice, however, that the wording of this proposed law promotes a narrow viewpoint centered on a religious belief, forcing that viewpoint on all students.
According to the Metro Weekly, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey vetoed a similar bill (Senate bill 1456) which would have allowed parents the right to opt children into “any instruction, LEARNING MATERIALS or presentations regarding sexuality, GENDER IDENTITY OR GENDER EXPRESSION in courses other than formal sex education curricula.” Ostensibly, that could have severely restricted, say, an English teacher from mentioning a novel with an LGBTQ+ character. Indeed, it would be impossible for educators to predict ahead of time when gender or sexuality could possibly be mentioned in a classroom.
Ducey did, however, issue an executive order basically calling for more transparency in education: “when schools provide instruction or presentations on sexuality in courses other than formal sex education, the governing bodies of schools must also establish procedures to notify parents in advance, and give parents the opportunity to withdraw from any such instruction.” Ostensibly, this could mean that a school librarian teaching students about book censorship and revealing that the most challenged books in 2019 featured diverse content would undergo rigorous oversight before any such lesson.
These examples of legislation serve to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion surrounding our public school educators. They also promote mis/disinformation related to the LGBTQ+ community (e.g. they are inappropriate, offensive, and dangerous to children) which affects the public health and safety of those in that community. The promotion of mis/disinformation in schools is echoed similarly in patterns of online hate speech and harassment/violence.
The GLAAD organization (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) recently published its inaugural report, the GLAAD Media Institute’s Social Media Safety Index (SMSI) as the “first-ever baseline evaluation of the LGBTQ user safety experience across the social media landscape.” The statistics reveal a troubling user experience: according to a January 2021 Pew Research survey, “68% of LGB adults had encountered online hate and harassment.” Online hate and harassment includes:
- Offensive name-calling
- Purposeful embarrassment
- Physical threats
- Harassment over a sustained period of time
- Sexual harassment
The conclusion is that “these expressions of hate, both online and off, are violent, dangerous, and harmful.” The SMSI includes a helpful infographic from the ADL, the Pyramid of Hate, to illustrate how real-world dangers can arise from biased attitudes and “contribute to an overall atmosphere of disrespect, dehumanization, hate, and violence” (SMSI). It’s not difficult to imagine how online hate and harassment affects a community’s mental and physical health.
The SMSI report reveals that some platforms like YouTube use AI and algorithms that may make it more difficult to share positive representations of the LGBTQ+ community. For example, preventing the censorship of the word “homosexual” even if it is not being used in a derogatory context requires more sophisticated technology or greater use of human moderators. Additionally, this censorship can unjustly affect the monetization of LGBTQ+ content while some hate speech content goes unchecked and generates profits. As the SMSI report states, “[YouTube] leans towards allowing extreme and hateful content to remain and generate views and profits […] as LGBTQ people, and society as a whole, suffer the dangerous consequences of bias, hate, and violence” (39).
One implication for librarians is to consider offering programming related to media literacy and the LGBTQ+ community. Create opportunities to share and analyze how various media outlets use images, text, video, and social media content to convey information about the LGBTQ+ community; how algorithms make it easier to spread harmful content; and how we might more critically analyze such content. Offer programming for patrons/students to learn about social media platforms’ policies and how algorithms might be used by bad actors to promote harmful mis/disinformation about groups of people. Examples from GLAAD’s SMSI report:
- Use the GLAAD Listing of Anti-LGBTQ Online Hate Speech to learn how people use social media to spread harmful mis/disinformation about the LGBTQ+ community – how are images, text, and video used to convey messages? Balance these images with those from the site https://lovehasnolabels.com/ (Love Has No Labels Educator Guide).
- Share information from the ADL Cyber-Safety Action Guide for patrons/students to analyze various online companies’ policies related to hate speech – are they unnecessarily burdensome and difficult to navigate? How can more be done to protect those vulnerable to violence?
- Teach patrons/students how algorithms function and can create “information silos” or “echo chambers” which spread harmful mis/disinformation by not including information in feeds from various perspectives. Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter relied more on “human moderators” than algorithms, introducing what’s called “friction,” to try to slow the spread of election mis/disinformation in 2020 (fact-check information, using warning labels, providing links to additional information, click to read before you share it). Share new information about how they can change their Facebook feeds to potentially avoid these situations.
- Educate patrons/students about online threats such as trolls, doxing, memes, and other examples using the Media Manipulation Casebook from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
The relationship between anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in education, online hate speech, and how information is monetized, filtered, and shared through social media is undeniably discriminatory and poses threats to public health and safety. Legislators, parents, and general users of social media have developed free speech talking points which legitimize hate speech and the spread of mis/disinformation, even in schools. Librarians can emerge as leaders to help educate people about how such information spreads and develop practical approaches to ensure that all communities remain safe from hate.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism/newspaper teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC. She is the recipient of the 2021 Media Literacy Teacher Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education.