Florida’s war on public education looks a lot like Russia’s

A new billboard welcoming visitors to "Florida: The Sunshine 'Don't Say Gay or Trans' State' is seen Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Winter Park, Fla.
(AP Photo/John Raoux)
A new billboard welcoming visitors to “Florida: The Sunshine ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ State’ is seen Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Winter Park, Fla. Billboards, which are being placed in key areas with high visitor traffic and visibility, are part of a new advertising campaign launched by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). (AP Photo/John Raoux)

This fall, a new set of education proposals will direct Russian schools to educate students in the Kremlin’s version of patriotism. Topics reportedly include “the rebirth of Russia as a great power in the 21st century,” “reunification with Crimea” and “the special military operation in Ukraine.”

President Vladimir Putin also rewrote Ukrainian history in the speech he gave just before Russia’s invasion in February; he and his allies have justified the invasion by framing it as a battle against so-called Western values, including LGBTQ rights.

Putin’s campaign to restrict history that can be taught in schools to the patriotic version the government endorses bears all the hallmarks of an authoritarian government intolerant of dissenting views. It also parallels ominous trends unfolding in our own schools, with the Sunshine State standing out as a prime example. 

In the war against public education in America, Florida occupies the front lines.

Consider the recent turmoil in South Florida, where teachers raised alarms about a training program that purports to teach students how to be “virtuous citizens.” Teachers say the trainers promoted a vision of American history that downplayed slavery and claimed it’s a “misconception” that “the Founders desired strict separation of church and state.”

The civics-training controversy is just the latest chapter in a campaign that has spread across Florida to restrict what students can learn and read in schools. The state recently enacted four new laws that censor classroom subjects and ideas, including the discriminatory Parental Rights in Education law, more commonly known among critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. These laws are already creating worrisome consequences for students and teachers. 

In Broward County, public schools removed 11 boxes full of LGBTQ-themed children’s books, donating them to the National Stonewall Museum, just before the “Don’t Say Gay” law was set to take effect. In Palm Beach, teachers were directed to remove certain books from their classroom libraries, and to complete a checklist to scrutinize all books they want to teach. The wholesale removal of LGBTQ-themed materials from Florida’s classrooms feels a lot like a Soviet-style purge.

Purging and censoring of LGBTQ identities are continuing apace in Russia, too. This month, deputies in the lower house of Russia’s parliament introduced legislation that would intensify the country’s notoriously harsh restrictions on LGBTQ rights, seeking to classify media that is found to promote LGBTQ themes as propaganda under the law.

The bill would broaden a 2013 prohibition — often called the “gay propaganda law” — against the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors, expanding the ban to cover content consumed by audiences of any age. The new legislation takes aim at film, television, internet content and books, posing a grave threat to Russia’s cultural institutions and its publishing industry.

Would you be surprised to learn that there is a nascent movement in the U.S. to create special TV ratings for shows with LGBTQ+ content to restrict them from young people? This summer also saw a concerted campaign to bar LGBTQ displays and books in public libraries, which has sprouted up across the country.

The rhetorical parallels are striking, too. Putin himself has frequently linked homosexuality to pedophilia. Moral panics about grooming were used to justify Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law nearly a decade ago. Officials and others are beating the same drum in support of the Don’t Say Gay law in Florida and across the U.S. today.

When our elected leaders emulate the efforts of authoritarian regimes to squash freedom of expression, they cripple our constitutional rights and embolden extremists. Book bans, gag order laws and the wave of educational censorship overtaking our schools all contribute to a broader assault on human rights that is reverberating far beyond classroom walls. 

These trends are downright dangerous. The Russian government routinely uses the 2013 ban to intimidate, harass and imprison LGBTQ activists. Here in the U.S. members of right-wing extremist groups have been arrested after crashing drag queen story hours and Pride Day celebrations. Targeted anti-LGBTQ vandalism has occurred in and around Illinois, Kansas CityCleveland and Boston. So it goes in Russia and other Eastern European countries with bans on LGBTQ books and identities in school — they’ve also seen eruptions of vandalism and violence.

The implications of government restrictions on free expression in the U.S. extend beyond our borders. They weaken America’s standing on the global stage as a voice for democracy and our credibility when we want to call out authoritarians like Putin for their abuses.

But we should also see it as a red flag for our own inclusive democracy — and our fundamental rights — when elected officials take steps that look similar to those of autocrats. In that sense, Putin’s patriotic dogma, his attacks on marginalized communities and his intolerance of dissent aren’t distant troubles. They’re an ominous sign of where our faltering democracy could be headed next.

Jonathan Friedman and Polina Sadovskaya are director of the free expression and education program and Eurasia program director at the free-speech organization PEN America.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 9 at 7:15 p.m. ET.

Tags Book bans Censorship in the United States Don't Say Gay bill LGBTQ rights Politics of the United States Ron DeSantis Vladimir Putin

More Education News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video