An unprecedented number of book challenges and bans is spurring journalists to question the alleged “grassroots” effort to shield children from LGBTQ+ and anti-racist materials. Most recently, The Guardian reported what may seem like independent groups of concerned parents are actually highly funded, conservative attempts to fracture efforts of inclusion and equity in k-12 schools. Satellite chapters of various organizations are popping up across the country.
Likening it to the fervor over communism of the early 20th Century, the anti-censorship group PEN America is calling this the ‘Ed Scare,’ Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education told Vox. Conservative leaders are working tirelessly to maintain the status quo of their interpretation of white, Christian values in America. Any ideas that go against – like LGBTQ+ rights, sex education, anti-racism and/or any critique of the founding of America is labled “radical” or “Marxist.” Vox mentions the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” is a common target.
Who are these organizations?
As censorship attempts spread across the country, understanding who and what these organizations represent is an important piece toward preventing further threats to intellectual freedom in the U.S.
Following is a profile of each organization and individual revealed to support these loosely coordinated efforts. Both The Guardian and a report by Vox have tied many, if not all, to book challenges in schools and influence on legislation to pass bans on teaching Critical Race Theory in k-12.
Parents Defending Education
One of the most cited organizations, Parents Defending Education (PDE), describes itself as “a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas.” This harmful agenda, according to their website, is what they refer to as “IndoctriNation.” An infographic map of “woke” hotspots inflames the United States like a country in conflagration. Each pin on the map represents an area in which a school is addressing race/sex/gender/equity and how many parent organizations are addressing this “problem.” The leading example includes a Charleston County School District’s decision to include racial equity training to staff.
According to The Guardian, “PDE’s president, Nicole Neilly, was previously the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum and worked at the Cato Institute, a rightwing thinktank co-founded by Republican mega-donor Charles Koch. The Intercept reported that the IWF has received large donations from Republican donor Leonard Leo, a former vice-president of the Koch-funded Federalist Society who advised Donald Trump on judicial appointments.”
Moms for Liberty
Moms for Liberty, also claiming to be a “grassroots” organization, is promoted on the PDE website and features much of the same agenda. According to The Guardian, Moms for Liberty coordinated with PDE in May to write a letter to Miguel Cardona, the US education secretary, “expressing concerns over federal efforts to include teaching about the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in US society.”
The website for Moms for Liberty, claims to advocate for “parental rights” and “fight those that stand in the way of liberty.” Their resources include sex education standards and information for schools, how to submit an open records request, link to the Heritage Foundation, which describes itself as “an organization whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” They also include information about the Constitution and voting.
Despite claiming liberty and freedom as their main goal, Moms for Liberty appear to engage in efforts to censor materials and education for all students based on their discomfort with these materials and policies for their own children.
No Left Turn in Education
Also promoted on PDE’s website, No Left Turn in Education appears to contradict itself in its desire to promote “truth and liberty” while simultaneously urging parents to advocate to ban LGBTQ+ and anti-racism books that don’t align with their particular agenda.
The website links to a list of more than 60 books that they claim to be “exposing” and that “demean our nation and its heroes, revise our history, and divide us as a people for the purpose of indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.” The books are categorized as “Critical Race Theory, Anti-Police, and Comprehensive Sexuality Education.”
No Left Turn also uses the term “indoctrination” when referring to ideas and thoughts that do not align with their beliefs and ironically claims, “Our fight is not over until malleable young minds are free from indoctrination that suppresses independent thought.”
The Goldwater Institute
The Goldwater Institute is a conservative think tank named for Arizona conservative Barry Goldwater. The Institute claims that it advances principles of limited government and free speech while also aiming to control the k-12 curriculum and resources used to educate students and train staff. They feature anecdotes and testimonials about teachers “whistleblowing” Critical Race Theory instruction in schools and produce videos about how they are working to keep “radical politics” and “Marxism” out of the classroom.
The website, much like No Left Turn, PDE and Moms for Liberty, share inflammatory claims about “radical agendas” to disguise their desire to engage in censorship and government control of intellectual freedom.
Catholic Conservative Writer Sohrab Ahmari & Fellow at the Conservative Manhattan Institute, Christopher Rufo
Sohrab Ahmari is a conservative writer and the current op-ed editor of the New York Post.
Enraged over a Drag Queen Storytime at a library in California, Ahmari tweeted his disdain saying, “This is demonic. To hell with liberal order.” Vox reported, “This rage powered a subsequent essay by Ahmari in the Christian magazine First Things, railing against what he saw as an unwillingness among cultural conservatives to use the law to establish their values. ‘Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism,’ Ahmari wrote.” Today, Vox notes, his essay is seen as foundational to the New Right movement, “a loose ideological group of conservatives who believe in the aggressive use of government to crush liberal influence over culture.”
Christopher Rufo is a conservative in favor of educational censorship and a key player in this New Right movement. A fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, Vox and the New York Times report that Rufo is the main individual who began the fury over Critical Race Theory. Nearly all of his Tweets mention CRT censorship and “taking back” schools. He tweeted on February 25, “The shift I’m hoping we see is ‘cultural war as public policy.’ It’s time to develop a concrete agenda to move the country forward: strip CRT from our institutions, restrain the bureaucracy, protect kids from ideological abuse, and give more power to parents and families.”
Using inflammatory language like “protect kids from ideological abuse” is a key tactic in the New Right strategy. Rufo and others who support the dismantling, controlling and censoring of school curricula and teachers are aiming their sights on Universities and higher education, as well.
This movement is rife with anti-democratic sentiment and cannot be ignored. A snippet from a Vox article in November of last year featuring Rufo and other New Right figures puts the issue into stark perspective:
“Views like these — that repudiate America’s core institutions and ideals, up to and often including its democracy — are becoming more and more mainstream on the right. They can be found at right-wing intellectual gatherings, like the National Conservatism conference. They can be found from one of the right’s leading moneymen, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who once argued that ‘I no longer think that freedom and democracy are compatible.’ They even have champions on Capitol Hill, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), a critic of ‘woke capitalism’ who has argued that the idea that a person should be free to ‘define your own values’ is a kind of ‘heresy.’”
Is that freedom? Or is it a way to keep white, conservative men in control and the rest of America under their ideological thumb?
Jacqui Higgins-Dailey worked as a public librarian for 10 years before becoming full-time residential library faculty at Glendale Community College in Arizona. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Chico and a masters in library science from the University of North Texas. She is passionate about information literacy instruction and loves to read, write, hike and travel.