The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Perhaps Dr. Seuss wasn’t a First Amendment tipping-point after all

That instead came from those wailing about the Seuss estate’s decision

Books by Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, seen at a Chicago library in March 2021. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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There was a time during President Biden’s administration when the most urgent crisis capturing the attention of his opponents was a private organization’s decision to stop printing a few of the scores of books in its catalogue. This was March 2021, less than a year ago, and the announcement by the estate of children’s book author Dr. Seuss that it would no longer publish a handful of lesser-known titles was greeted by Republicans and Fox News with all of the rationality and temperance of Mike Lindell talking about voting machines.

Fox News covered the story constantly. Just segment after segment. Seuss was mentioned 60 times in the 24 hours after the announcement from his estate. The development was generally looped into the network’s broader fight against “cancel culture,” an umbrella term referring to circumstances in which offensive language, images or actions had prompted some negative response — a person losing a job or a product being discontinued, for example.

But for Fox and its contributing team, cancel culture was simply a leftist attempt to institute cultural Bolshevism, an anti-American push being actively championed by a Democratic Party that had attained unified control of the government. Overheated rhetoric about Biden goon squads coming after Republicans who dared speak up was intertwined with this idea that Hollywood elites were also cracking down on wrongthink. And now, even targeting Seuss!

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Calling this nonsense is an understatement. Seuss’s estate understood that some illustrations in a few books used racial stereotypes that had no potential benefit and obvious potential drawbacks. So the estate, responsible for his legacy, yanked the books. This was not a First Amendment issue, since it wasn’t in any way a government edict attempting to control free speech. If anything, it was deeply capitalistic, hoping to make sure that no one had a reason not to spend money on Seuss books.

In a few months, Fox had pivoted to a different, broader example of the threat free speech faced in the United States: critical race theory. The network (and Republican officials and the right-wing media in general) wasn’t really criticizing the academic theory that is described using that three-word phrase, but instead a mishmash of race-related talking points and pedagogies that were plucked out of the national conversation to use as examples. Occasions in which race was discussed clumsily or where some controversial book was discovered were cherry-picked and baked into a delicious pie for Fox News’s audience. That the subject amplified tensions between voters and school boards — particularly in Virginia, where a close gubernatorial contest was underway — simply meant that it was useful for Fox to keep hammering on the idea until early November.

All of that focus on critical race theory and its conflation with discussions of race more broadly led to a predictable outcome: Legislators eager to appeal to Republicans who watch Fox News began introducing legislation doing exactly what didn’t happen with Dr. Seuss. The state would weigh in, removing from schools and libraries books that failed to meet subjective standards for content.

In late November, the American Library Association, an advocacy organization that tracks censorship efforts, released an unusual statement condemning the efforts.

“In recent months, a few organizations have advanced the proposition that the voices of the marginalized have no place on library shelves. To this end, they have launched campaigns demanding the censorship of books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color,” the statement read. “Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections.”

There were already numerous examples of this occurring, from a sweeping list of purportedly dubious books distributed in Texas (leading to the removal of books from library shelves for “review”) to an explicit call to burn books in Virginia. In total, the ALA recorded more than 270 books that were targeted in 2021, including more than 230 challenges in the last four months of the year. Meanwhile, more than a dozen states have passed laws targeting purported elements of “critical race theory.”

Those efforts continue apace. A month ago, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced legislation centered on the issue — the “Stop WOKE Act” — by claiming that he was upholding the vision of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“You think about what MLK stood for,” he said. “He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don’t talk about that.”

There is certainly robust irony in oversimplifying and misrepresenting King’s views of race to pass a law restricting how race can be taught. There is also irony in DeSantis endorsing legislation that imposes speech-centered restrictions on businesses, given his investment in touting Florida as a state of robust freedom — at least where coronavirus restrictions are concerned.

Legislation recently approved by a legislative panel in the state (and supported by DeSantis) does exactly that. If passed, it would classify as “discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin” any mandated instruction from employers that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such individual to believe” one of a series of unusual claims — such as that members of one race are inherently morally superior to members of other races, or that someone of a race “bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of actions committed in the past by other members of the same race.” Similar prohibitions apply to school curriculums. It’s all very clumsy, in the way of proposed legislation, but it’s clear in its intent: In Florida, you’re not allowed to do the things Fox News says Democrats and Black people do.

One aspect of the law that’s garnered a lot of attention is its determination an employee or student “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” Speaking to the Associated Press, state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D) argued that the bill “was directed to make Whites not feel bad about what happened years ago.” The proposed law does mandate instruction on “the history of African Americans,” including slavery and “the contributions of African Americans to American society.” That mandate is followed by a requirement to teach “the elementary principles of agriculture,” “the true effects of all alcoholic and intoxicating liquors and beverages and narcotics upon the human body and mind” and “kindness to animals.”

Look where we ended up. A political faction that spent March 2021 wailing about Dr. Seuss and the purported threat to speech and open discussion in the United States transitioned into a faction that advocated restrictions on the availability of particular books or lines of argument and instruction. A business choosing not to print books is chastised; laws prohibiting businesses from mandating trainings don’t engender comment. We shouldn’t assume that a handful of efforts to ban books are representative of a consensus, certainly, though Fox News’s silence on the issue (particularly relative to its Seussathon) is noteworthy. But the idea that the left is trying to mandate a particular worldview, and therefore that the state should intervene to prevent promulgation of that worldview, would certainly seem to be the sort of thing that the right would find offensive in a different context.

I am not aware of any trickle-down effects from the decision to stop publishing a half-dozen Dr. Seuss books.