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Respect for the Constitution used to be a basic qualification for elected officials. These days, some voters are giddy about campaign promises that would blatantly defy it. More troublingly, some politicians and candidates are ready and willing to give those people want they want — provided that they deliver them electoral gains. Ohio Senate hopeful Josh Mandel is one such person. In October, Mandel courted voters with his insistence that “there’s no such thing as separation of church and state” and the prospect of “instilling faith in the classroom, in the workplace, and everywhere in society.” While Mandel may calculate that these brazenly unconstitutional ideas are good for his political ambitions, there is no doubt that they are disastrous for the rule of law.
The First Amendment is clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Constitution puts the government under a crucial constraint. Government officials can neither sponsor religion nor wield state-sponsored control over people’s right to practice it. The Establishment Clause is vital to prevent the government from persecuting religious minorities, privileging the faith of some at the expense of the faith of others, and forcing people to conform to the beliefs of the officials that govern them. It is a check against abuses of power that could infringe on the civil liberties of both the faithful and the secular. In totality, the First Amendment grants five core freedoms: speech, religion, petition for redress, press, and assembly. Mandel’s stated desire to take a hatchet to the First Amendment plays a dangerous game, especially for someone whose dream job involves carrying out constitutional responsibilities in the job description.
The strategy to gain political capital by appealing to the extreme is not exclusive to Mandel. It has infected politics across the country and carries chilling consequences for Americans’ First Amendment rights. The University of Florida, a public school, recently sought to stop its own faculty from testifying on behalf of plaintiffs who were suing the state of Florida over an election law that Governor Ron DeSantis enthusiastically supported. Professor Daniel Smith, a political science expert and nearly 20-year faculty member who was barred from testifying, had previously offered expert testimony and advice about voting rights to Congress, state legislatures, and outside groups. The University of Florida previously praised those activities for providing opportunities for students. Despite past approval, school officials argued that the faculty members’ testimony would present “a conflict of interest to the executive branch,” and said that because “UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.” A DeSantis spokesperson denied involvement but echoed the university’s minimization of the free speech claim because the faculty would be paid for their expert testimony. Compensation for expert testimony is common and would not affect free speech concerns as participation is voluntary. After an uproar, the University of Florida reversed its course.
It is extremely unusual for a public school to forbid academics at public institutions from giving legal testimony. Public schools like the University of Florida are government actors, which are constrained by the First Amendment. The American Association of University Professors, which advocates for academic freedom at colleges, decried the “University of Florida’s politically motivated violation of academic freedom” as “undermin[ing] the common good.” The Alliance for Academic Freedom, which promotes freedom of speech across the ideological spectrum, offered legal precedents in condemning “the major violation of well-established principles of freedom of speech.” Among them is Connick v. Myers (1983), which held that “a public employee does not relinquish First Amendment rights to comment on matters of public interest by virtue of government employment.” According to Rankin v. McPherson (1987), “vigilance is necessary to ensure that public employers do not use authority over employees to silence discourse.” Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) also limited when a state entity can impose on employees’ speech. The case held that government workers “must face only those speech restrictions that are necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively” when the “employees are speaking as citizens about matters of public concern.” Government disagreement with a government employee’s private speech is not a constitutionally valid rationale.
Similar First Amendment issues have emerged as controversies over critical race theory engulf school boards. Critical race theory is an academic perspective that interrogates how race has affected social, legal, and institutional structures. Sometimes discussed in law and graduate programs, critical race theory took center stage in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election. Several politicians marketed critical race theory as an indoctrinating staple of K-12 curriculums that teachers force-fed to young children. While many opponents of critical race theory have struggled to define the meaning of the term, others have attempted to define it with an inaccurately broad scope.
Critical race theory is a subgroup of critical legal theory, which holds that the law is necessarily intertwined with inherent social biases to support the interests of people who created the legal system. “The essential claim of CLS is that all law is politics,” explained a Touro Law Review piece. “Since there can be no objective way of developing a universal system of jurisprudence, all jurisprudence is, therefore, indeterminate and subjective.” Critical race theory critiques constitutional structure and legal ideology. It holds that the First Amendment cannot be neutrally interpreted or objectively applied, that some groups are categorically deprived of legal protection, and that racially oppressive views are codified in America’s founding documents. These concepts are difficult for many college students to grasp, never mind children ages five to 17.
Conversations about how race affects institutions in themselves do not amount to critical race theory. On the contrary, many discussions center around ideas that challenge critical race theory’s principles. One such stance is that the First Amendment is a valuable tool in fighting bigotry because it protects protest, establishes legal claims for redress, and permits criticism of unjust government actions. Another is that the rule of law is not just a ruse to protect the powerful, but a legitimate principle for constitutional accountability. The belief that the founding documents are aspirational in the pursuit of a “more perfect [u]nion,” even when the legal system falls short, also challenges critical race theory. Given these developments, multiple critical race theory bans were proposed by local school boards that have legal problems similar to the ones in the Florida controversy.
In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the Supreme Court held that public students do not “shed” their First Amendment rights “at the schoolhouse gate[,]” notably when student speech does not infringe on other people’s rights or create substantial disruptions. Enforcement of a critical race theory ban could infringe on constitutionally protected expression. When the definition of critical race theory is extensive in scope, it could stifle important conversations about tolerance, racism, discrimination, and respect for cultural differences. Public school teachers tasked with educating students also do not forfeit all of their First Amendment protections in the scope of their employment. While teachers’ freedom of expression is restricted at the K-12 level, they still have some protections for speech about issues of public concern. In Pickering v. Board of Education (1968), Justice Thurgood Marshall noted that “the interest of the school administration in limiting teachers’ opportunities to contribute to public debate is not significantly greater than its interest in limiting a similar contribution by any member of the general public.”
Calls to ban Toni Morrison’s book Beloved also raise censorship concerns. While the Supreme Court held in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982) that public schools can bar books from school library shelves that are “pervasively vulgar” or unsuitable for a curriculum, they cannot remove books from those shelves “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Beloved details the life of a former slave, who feared her children would be captured. Terrified that her child would be subjected to the horrors of slavery, the protagonist tragically kills her own daughter in the belief that death was preferable to enslavement. “Beloved, she my daughter,” Morrison wrote in a haunting passage. “She mine… She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing. I didn’t have time to explain before because it had to be done quick. Quick. She had to be safe and I put her where she would be.” While Beloved is an emotionally jarring novel and does contain sexual content, the case that a ban was proposed to quell discussion is strong. Although passages about sex may be uncomfortable, the true power to disturb comes from its raw depictions of slavery, brutality, and death. While one could try to claim that Beloved should not be taught in a curriculum because it has sexual material, it can also be persuasively argued that the intellectual gain to older students from teaching it outweighs that concern.
These are only some of the recent examples of how politicians and lawmakers have threatened their constituents’ First Amendment rights. Mandel’s candidacy opens the door for more infringements. The excuses for Mandel’s comments — from dismissing his words as hyperbolic or arguing that he would never actually pass policies that would violate the First Amendment – give cover for inexcusable conduct. Citizens should never tolerate candidates who openly, and proudly in Mandel’s case, call for trampling constitutional rights.
In another disturbing turn of events, a candidate running against Mandel used his religion against him. His opponent released an anti-Semitic advertisement in which a voice actor asked, “Are we seriously supposed to believe the most Christian-values Senate candidate is Jewish? I am so sick of these phony caricatures.” Another voice in the advertisement adds, “I agree… We keep electing people like this, we’ll just keep getting the same terrible results.” This smear campaign demonstrates why the First Amendment is so precious and the frightening irony of Mandel’s comments. If Mandel’s opponent were to prevail, he might implement menacing policies given his evident animosity toward religious minorities. The Constitution was meant to prevent Americans from abdicating their liberties to a zealous government. Voters who turn their cheeks at blatantly unconstitutional pitches like Mandel’s make a mockery of this protection, which is a privilege that people who suffer under oppressive regimes in other nations could only dream of having. Fidelity to the Constitution should not be optional for lawmakers, current and aspiring. It is the bare minimum credential for public service. Those who flirt with constitutional violations are unfit.
Christina Coleburn is a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School.