Guest Columnist

Iowa's proposed '1619 Project' ban is a censorship of thought

A newspaper clipping from 1831 on display at the Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.  Washington Post photo by
A newspaper clipping from 1831 on display at the Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti.

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” But if they are made poorly, both are bad for you.

An Iowa House member has introduced a bill that would penalize school districts if they teach history using any information from something called the “1619 Project.” That curriculum was developed to re-examine slavery in the United States, and it contains some harsh realities not otherwise taught.

For example, were you taught that, “The 1664 General Assembly of Maryland decreed that all Negroes within the province ‘shall serve durante vita,’ hard labor for life. This enslavement would be sustained by the threat of brutal punishment. By 1729, Maryland law authorized punishments of enslaved people including ‘to have the right hand cut off ... the head severed from the body, the body divided into four quarters, and head and quarters set up in the most public places of the county.’”?

This is true, but if a teacher uses this information from the project, House File 222 would cut their school’s funding. The bill also applies to “any similarly developed curriculum.” In other words, “Even if I haven’t seen it, it’s bad.”

Beyond the obvious Constitutional problems with the bill, it is unenforceable. Who decides if particular information came from the 1619 Project; who decides if a curriculum is “similar?” This is nothing but censorship of thought.

Vice President Spiro T. Agnew said, “Freedom of speech is useless without freedom of thought,” and Alan Dershowitz — who represented President Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial — has said freedom of speech “means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent.”

If you disagree with speech, you don’t ban it; you present opposing views. The Iowa Constitution says plainly that, “No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech ...”

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More than 40 groups have officially objected to the bill, and during a subcommittee hearing on Feb. 9 there were many thoughtful statements in opposition. The representative brushed those comments aside, spent 10 of the hearing’s 60 minutes reading a statement with his thoughts on the politics of the 1619 Project, and never engaged in a meaningful discussion of the pros and cons of the bill.

What was most telling was the fact he never mentioned one constituent, one Iowan who had raised concerns about the project.

Instead, he relied on national opponents of the project who had their views published in places such as the World Socialist website.

It’s a good bet that if you were in the Sioux Center Fareway the night before a big blizzard, you could throw a stone and not hit anyone who had ever even heard of the 1619 Project before it became this legislator’s pet project.

He also has a bill that would make Black market sales of handguns legal. Now, if a drug dealer sells a handgun to another drug dealer who doesn’t have a gun permit, that’s a felony for both of them. His bill eliminates that crime.

And then there’s his attempt to pass a law about how many toilets a bar has to have. There’s more, but that’s enough.

Someone needs to take this representative aside and say “Look, you don’t have to present a bill just because you can. You don’t have to be a bully just because you have a bully pulpit.”

Small minds make bad laws ... and bad laws get in the way of good ones.

The legislature has only two more months to finish its work.

In the month it’s been in session, it has passed only a handful of bills and resolutions, including to give Coast Guard members the same rights given other military members, modify the disorderly conduct statute dealing with “loud and raucous noise,” allow more consumer accounts to be billed for service charges, deal with remote education, and propose a constitutional amendment dealing with firearms.

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Meanwhile, the Legislative Services Agency had to draft HF 222, opponents of the bill had to respond to the bill, and there was a one-hour hearing — all wasted on an unconstitutional, unenforceable bill because someone thinks they are better qualified to decide what to teach than trained educators and the Department of Education.

We don’t watch sausage being made because we trust the sausage-maker to do their job right and to give us a good and safe product. We should be able to expect the same from the Iowa Legislature.

Bob Teig was a career federal prosecutor in Cedar Rapids for 32 years before he retired in 2011.

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