Seeking to kill freedom of thought, Ohio Republicans target university classrooms

COLUMBUS—The Ohio Republican Party has continued its march toward fascism with the introduction of a new bill threatening academic freedom in the state.

Senate Bill 83 is yet another spiteful attack on civil liberties by the Ohio GOP, which has spent the last decade demolishing democracy across the state in a bid to consolidate its power. The bill is sponsored by right-wing State Sen. Jerry Cirino, who represents the Zanesville area.

The measure aims to suppress the dissemination of progressive thought in colleges and universities and curtail the power of academic labor unions. It bans the so-called “indoctrination” of students in college courses, provides protection to racist and homophobic educators, and, brazenly, forbids educators from striking for better working conditions.

To top it off with a bit of racist hysteria, the bill also bans Ohio schools from partnering with Chinese universities. Some schools, like Ohio State University and Wuhan University, have collaborated for years on important medical research, a demonstration of international cooperation that angers the rabidly Sinophobic MAGA movement.

The attack on educators’ unions is nothing new—the GOP has long fought to suppress unionization in academia. When a wave of graduate student unionization efforts broke out during the Trump administration, his reactionary National Labor Rights Board moved to ban grad student workers from unionizing by refusing to classify them as employees.

But S.B. 83’s attacks on academic liberties mark a striking power grab by the Ohio Republican Party. The bill allows the state to retaliate against educators who are perceived as “indoctrinating” their students. On the surface, it sounds fair; students should expect quality education from their universities, not ideology.

But this bill is not designed to protect academic discourse. It’s designed precisely to suppress it.

Supporters of the bill, like law professor George Dent, try to disguise the bill as an innocuous attempt to protect free speech. He claims, “The bill does not prohibit discussion of social issues. It prohibits indoctrination.”

But who defines “indoctrination”? What is an academic fact, and what is an opinion? What is theory, and what is absolute truth? Right now, those concepts are determined in classroom discourse, through discussion and collective analysis by professors and their students. There may be disagreement, there may be mistakes, but it all occurs within the open atmosphere of academia.

Ohio Republicans want to freeze this discourse and have the state mandate truth. Professors will fear teaching the “wrong idea,” in case it angers the sensitivities of some overreaching right-wing bureaucrat.

The vagueness of a bill like this is not an oversight—it’s the intent. It allows the people who hold state power to determine what is a violation and what is not. The definitions are so cloudy that one could justify labeling almost anything as “indoctrination” if you they are determined to do so.

And since the Ohio GOP has entrenched themselves in power via a web of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and anti-democratic laws, S.B. 83 gives them near unilateral power to punish dissenting voices in academia. They alone will decide what is truth and what is “propaganda,” and outspoken voices will be terrorized for going against right-wing narratives.

This bill should alarm any person who values free speech, democracy, or healthy public debate. Reactionary forces in America are determined to outlaw criticism of their ideas and policies. Anyone who does not pander to their every belief is being targeted as a symptom of the “woke virus” that must be destroyed.

In fact, Michael Poliakoff, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said the quiet part out loud when he spoke in support of the S.B. 83.

“Most of the bad ideas that now plague our country began in our universities and have now spread to other organizations, such as the growing number of Woke corporations,” Poliakoff said.

What’s most striking in quotes such as this is the contradictory arguments they contain. Their proponents claim students are being brainwashed, but they also resent that these students are being taught what they have determined to be “bad ideas.” In other words, ideas that aren’t conservative.

The brainwashing rhetoric is cover for resentment that progressive ideals are generally more popular in academia than reactionary ones. Conservatism has been unable to convince this new generation to uncritically support capitalism and its supporting ideologies and this has made its adherents spiteful.

Conservative forces in America do not care about free speech, no matter what they claim. They don’t value independent voices or civic debate. They are simply upset that in academic settings, it’s no longer acceptable to engage in racist or homophobic tirades. The world has left them behind, and rather than change, they are trying to drag the world back by force.

This authoritarian mindset cannot be better demonstrated than in this disturbing racist rant by Prof. Poliakoff, given during his testimony in support of the bill:

“Dominant discourse on our campuses also holds that America is deeply and systemically racist, yet America is the least racist major country in the world today. Although we still have problems with excessive inequality, including racial inequality, Black people are freer and more prosperous, have more opportunities, and have achieved more in America than in any other country. But you would never learn this in our universities.”

Poliakoff does not want you to think for yourself. He wants you to believe what he believes, and rather than convince you, he’ll use the state to force you.

Poliakoff, and the GOP, are fascists. There is no other word to describe them.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

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T. Zelina
T. Zelina

T. Zelina writes from Ohio.