Journal of Educational Controversy


Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Books for Young People on Israeli & Palestinian Life


Editor:  Our Western Washington University librarian has compiled this list of classroom book suggestions to help young people understand Israeli & Palestinian life.  A special thank you to Sylvia Gabrielle Tag, WWU Librarian & Associate Professor,  for her contribution to our understanding.  For an earlier post that provided an annotated bibliography for educators and youth on Ukraine, click here.


Israeli & Palestinian Youth Come Together: An Annotated Bibliography

Sylvia Gabrielle Tag


This list highlights books for young people that contain both Israeli and Palestinian characters, settings, and narratives. The list is heartbreakingly short – one might say tragically so considering the current conflict. The list begins with true stories, providing evidence of our shared humanity. Recently, librarians and educators are using the term “true stories” versus the traditional genre of nonfiction. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is true for the photographs in true stories as well as the images in picture books. Middle school readers are ready to tackle tough issues and still look to grown-ups for guidance. Realistic fiction, fantasy and documentary books are provided for teens. We hope that more books will be published that connect us - these books offer a place to start.


True Stories / Nonfiction


Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak by Deborah Ellis – Based on interviews of children and teenagers in Israel and Palestine. Ellis alternates Israeli and Palestinian voices and prefaces each of the accounts by an informative discussion of pertinent issues and a profile of the interviewee and his/her experiences. A perceptive and empathetic presentation.


Sharing Our Homeland: Palestinian and Jewish Children at Summer Peace Camp by Trish Marx - Summer is here, and Alya, an Israeli Palestinian girl, and Yuval, an Israeli Jewish boy, are off to Peace Camp. At camp, Alya, Yuval, and the other campers enjoy two weeks of fun in close contact with one another. They participate in sports, create arts and crafts projects, and go on field trips. The children begin to understand what their homeland means to both sides. They learn not to be afraid and to respect one another.


Neve Shalom Wahat Al-Salaam: Oasis of Peace by Laurie Dolphin - This cooperative school outside of Jerusalem brings Jews and Arabs together in the hopes that by raising their children together, they will create a peaceful co-existence. Told from the point of view of two 10-year-old boys, with photographs throughout.


Picture Books


Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams – A touching picture book about two neighbors―one Jewish, one Muslim― who have always been best friends. In Gilani's retelling of a folktale―which has both Jewish and Arab origins―differences are not always causes for conflict and friendship can overcome any obstacle.


A Moon for Moe and Mo by Jane Breskin Zalben - Moses Feldman, a Jewish boy, lives at one end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, while Mohammed Hassan, a Muslim boy, lives at the other. One day they meet at Sahadi's market while out shopping with their mothers and are mistaken for brothers. A friendship is born, and the boys bring their families together to share rugelach and date cookies in the park as they make a wish for peace.


Snow in Jerusalem by Deborah Da Costa - Avi and Hamudi are two boys who live in Jerusalem's Old City―Avi in the Jewish Quarter and Hamudi in the Muslim Quarter. To each boy, the other's neighborhood is an alien land. And although neither boy knows it, both are caring for the same beautiful white stray cat. One day the boys follow the cat as she travels the winding streets and crosses the boundaries between the city’s quarters.


Middle Grades


Wishing Upon the Same Stars by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman - When twelve-year-old Yasmeen Khoury moves with her family to San Antonio, all she wants to do is fit in. When Yasmeen meets her neighbor, Ayelet Cohen, a first-generation Israeli American and the two girls become friends. But when Yasmeen’s grandmother moves in after her home in Jerusalem is destroyed, Yasmeen and Ayelet must grapple with how much closer the events of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are than they’d realized. Can peace begin with them?


Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi - Samir, a Palestinian boy, is sent for surgery to an Israeli hospital where he has two otherworldly experiences, making friends with an Israeli boy, Yonatan, and traveling with him to Mars where Samir finds peace over his younger brother's death in the war. 


Running on Eggs by Anna Levine - It all starts when Karen and Yasmine trade lunch boxes. Such an act would hardly raise eyebrows anywhere else, but Karen lives on an Israeli kibbutz and Yasmine in a nearby Palestinian village, and distrust between the two cultures runs deep. Running on Eggs offers a frank portrayal of modern-day Israel and recounts the story of two girls whose loyalty to each other helps them overcome the obstacles in their path.


Young Adult


Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed – A book about dating, friendship, families, and resistance. Two teen activists canvas the streets of New York City and learn to navigate cross-cultural differences that run deep.


You Asked for Perfect by Laura Silverman - The story follows Ariel, a Jewish teen, as he fights for valedictorian all while falling for Amir, the Muslim son of family friends. Significantly, Ariel and Amir are never challenged regarding their religion and sexuality. These novel resists assumptions that necessitate cultural conflict.


Internment by Samira Ahmed – In this disturbing fantasy novel, 17-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the camp, and her Jewish boyfriend on the outside, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp's director and his guards. 


A Bottle in the Gaza Sea by ValĂ©rie Zenatti - Seventeen-year-old Tal Levine of Jerusalem, despondent over the ongoing Arab Israeli conflict, puts her hopes for peace in a bottle and asks her brother, a military nurse in the Gaza Strip, to toss it into the sea, leading ultimately to friendship and understanding between her and an "enemy." 


The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan - For older readers, this book is based on a 43-minute radio documentary that Tolan produced for "Fresh Air," this volume pursues the story into the homes and histories of the two families at its center through the present day. Their stories form a personal microcosm of the last 70 years of Israeli-Palestinian history 


Growing Self-esteem in Israeli and Palestinian Young People 

Jewish Readers Deserve to See Themselves Outside of the Holocaust and Holidays by BrocheAroe Fabian 


12 Children's and YA Books by Palestinian Authors by Hannah Moushabeck 


Resources on Grief, Loss, and Understanding

Not If But When: Books for Young People About Death and Loss is a website of book titles. Children and teens facing the loss of friends and family, or their own mortality, need help navigating the emotional, physical, and practical upheavals and restorations. Books offer opportunities to ask questions, wonder, and simply acknowledge the realities of their circumstances.


Hello, Dear Enemy: Picture Books for Peace is a traveling exhibit from the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany. The exhibit is divided into four themes: Experiences of War, Destruction, and Displacement; Power Struggles and the Origin and Escalation of Violence; Prejudice, Ostracism, and Imagined Enemies; Utopias of Peace and Anti-War Books. List of exhibit books here:


The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) is a non-profit organization which represents an international network of people from all over the world who are committed to bringing books and children together in order to promote international understanding through children's books


Friday, June 30, 2023

Article on Affirmative Action from the Journal of Educational Controversy


Long before the recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision, the Journal of Educational Controversy published an important article on affirmative action, entitled, “Anti-Affirmative Action and Historical Whitewashing: ToNever Apologize While Committing New Racial Sins,” by author Hoang Vu Tran shortly after his death.  Hoang V. Tran was a young assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University. He died from drowning in a lake while trying to save his friends from a strong current.  He left a three-year-old daughter and another child who was not yet born.  This article was probably the last manuscript he published, and we would like to highlight it for our readers in light of yesterday's Supreme Court decision.

The article appeared in our 2020 issue of the journal on the theme, "The Ethics of Memory: What Does It Mean to Apologize for Historical Wrongs."

Professor Hoang Tran’s Abstract of his article, “Anti-Affirmative Action and Historical Whitewashing:To Never Apologize While Committing New Racial Sins.”


Apologies, official or otherwise, for historical wrongs are important steps in the road towards reconciliation. More difficult are historical wrongs that have yet to be fully acknowledged. The reemergence of affirmative action in the public consciousness via the Supreme Court represents a striking example of the ways in which our collective consciousness has yet to fully account for our past educational sins: segregation and income inequality. This essay explores the multiple consequences to our historical memory when the anti-affirmative action narrative continues to dominate the public discourse on racism in education. I offer a renewed focus on ‘fenced out’ as the deterministic consideration of racism in education. In doing so, our historical memory and contemporary consciousness regains the potential to differentiate between admissions grievances, and ongoing racists practices such as de facto segregation and income inequality in education.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Journal of Educational Controversy Announces a New Call for Papers: Facilitating Discussions of Controversial Issues in Difficult Times

The Journal of Educational Controversy announces a new call for papers for Volume 16.

Theme: Facilitating Discussions of Controversial Issues in Difficult Times

Controversy Addressed:

Controlling speech in classrooms has been an issue for as long as there have been schools. Who gets to speak, what they are allowed to say, what counts as a legitimate topic for discussion, and what constitutes “truth” have always been determined by the economic and political processes that control education. Recently, these processes have become the subject of public debate and political controversy.  From both the putative right and the putative left, morally inflected demands for control of classroom conversation have made headlines and have played a role in funding, legislation, lawsuits, campaigning, and voting choices. Bans on certain words, trigger warnings, a shift from politics to psychology, a focus on trauma, fear of certain theories (usually those with “critical” in their title), the struggle for control of historical narratives, the censorship of invited speakers, and the framing of identities have all become part of the discussion of what can and cannot be said in a classroom, what will and won’t get funded, and who can be fired for speech.

We invite authors to bring clarity and illumination to these issues from a conceptual, philosophical, historical, and political perspective and to offer ideas about actual classroom practices.

 ·       What do we mean by a controversy? Do all differences of opinion count as legitimate controversies? What purpose does the discussion of controversies play in the education of democratic citizens?

·       What are some effective practices in the teaching for complexity through the classroom discussion of controversial issues in the different disciplines—literature, science, social studies, history, environmental studies, mathematics, political science, economics, psychology, the arts and theater, etc.

·       What is the legitimate scope of decision-making by teachers and librarians based on professional knowledge, by the democratic control of education through state legislatures and governors, by local vs. state authority, by the rights and concerns of parents.

 Deadline for Manuscripts: October 15, 2023

Sunday, March 12, 2023

The Journal’s latest issue on “Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment” is now Online

I am pleased to announce that our special issue on “Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment” is now online at the Journal of Educational Controversy.  Here is a direct link:   Please consider continuing the conversation by contributing a rejoinder.

Authors responded to the following controversial scenario:

As the nation begins to reckon with its racial past, it is now experiencing a backlash by some states that are implementing laws and policies that will target how civics education, controversial topics, and divisive issues will be discussed from kindergarten through higher education.  From restrictions on the teaching of academic theories that analyze systemic racism to limiting other race-related discussions in the classroom, actions by these states pose not only a challenge and a danger to traditional academic freedom but also to the very definition of the role of education in a democratic society.

 This issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy asks authors to contribute their thoughts on issues such as:

 1.            How should racism be appropriately addressed at different age levels and the college classroom?  What social, historical, political, and cultural understandings should be brought to bear on the conversation?  How do we defend the educational significance for the choices we make?  How do we act in proactive ways to engage in such work so that we are not forced to be reactive?

2.            How are we to understand the political nature of the attacks against theories like Critical Race Theory and other current political actions by states to restrict and censor discussions on race in order for us to counter them more effectively?  What political dynamics and historical precedents are at play?  Can incidents from the past illuminate a response today?

3.            How should university professors prepare the next generation of teachers in confronting these issues?

4.           What would it look like if a college of education took on the work of dismantling structural racism?

Below is the table of contents from the journal:




Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment
Lorraine Kasprisin
Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment

Articles in Response to Controversy


The Sociohistorically Situated and Structurally Central Nature of Race: Toward an Analytic of Research regarding Race and Racism
Rolf Straubhaar
Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment


A critically conscious analysis of institutionalized racism in teacher education: Imagining anti-racist teacher preparation spaces
Tatiana Joseph, Jennifer Brownson, Kristine Lize, Elizabeth Drame, and Laura Owens
Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment


“Teaching in a War Zone”: A Collective Reflection on Learning from a Diversity Course in Contentious Times
Elena Aydarova, Jacob Kelley, and Kristen Daugherty
Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment


Dissonance as an Educational Tool for Coping with Students’ Racist Attitudes
Adar Cohen
Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment


Stories Read and Told in an Antiracist Teaching Book Club
Jennifer Ervin and Madison Gannon
Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment


Troubling the Null Curriculum through a Multiple-Perspectives Pedagogy: A Critical Dialogue Between Two Equity-Minded Teacher Educators
Rachel Endo and Deb Sheffer
Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment


On the continuity of learning, teaching, schooling: Mead’s educational proposal, from the perspective of decolonization and Land/place-based education
Cary Campbell Dr.
Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment

About the Authors


About the Authors

Vol. 15, Iss. 1

Theme: Teaching for Social Justice in a Highly Politicized Historical Moment

Monday, January 16, 2023

Some Personal Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

 Welcome back to our blog for the new year.  On this Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I am re-sharing some personal thoughts.  In 1991 I delivered the commencement address at Western Washington University.  Because I was honored to have Martin Luther King, Jr. as my commencement speaker back in 1963, I chose to treat my address as a conversation through time from Dr. King's words to me at my graduation - filtered through my life's experiences over the years – then to the young audience of new graduates as they embarked on their own journey and continued the conversation with their own generation.  I thought I would once again share this experience with my readers.


Personal Reflections on the Influence of Martin Luther King’s Commencement Address Two Months Before the 1963 March on Washington

I first learned about the March on Washington from Martin Luther King, Jr. who was the commencement speaker at my June 1963 graduation from the College of the City of New York. With the 50th anniversary of the historic march on Washington coming up on August 28th, I have been thinking about that commencement event that occurred just two months before the march and the effect that it was to have on my life. In fact, the events of those years had a profound influence on who I was to become as a person. They shaped my social conscience. They shaped the kind of moral questions that I continue to raise in my life even today. And they shaped the type of choices that I made in my life--- my decision to be a teacher, my decision to study philosophy - seriously and deeply, my decision to try to raise the old Socratic questions about the good life and the just society that Socrates raised 2500 years ago and which Dr. King was to raise later under a different set of circumstances, at a different moment in history, to my generation. Ultimately, it led to the creation of the Journal of Educational Controversy and this blog.

In 1991, I was asked to deliver my own commencement address at Western Washington University as that year’s recipient of the university’s teaching award. The address gave me an opportunity to think about the nature of such speeches and their purpose. I decided to take a different approach from the traditional ones that are delivered at most commencements. Rather than viewing my own commencement address as an event in time and space - a talk given on the morning of December 14, 1991 in a small university town, I chose to treat it as a conversation that occurs through time - from Dr. King's words to me at my graduation - filtered through my life's experiences over the years – then to the young audience of new graduates as they embarked on their own journey and continued the conversation with their own generation. It was in a sense a conversation from one generation to the next about the questions that are central to why we educate - questions about the kind of persons we become - and ultimately, questions about the kind of community we create. It is a conversation, I might add, that is sadly lacking in the public debate of our time. One has only to listen to the media each night to see how far we are from a true conversation on these questions.

I remember first talking about the nature of an authentic conversation and ways that it differs from the many false versions of it, for example, political conversations that have been increasingly reduced to a manipulation of the voter through effective 90 second sound-bites over the airwaves where issues become mere vehicles for projecting images rather than the source of concerned social debate. I remember talking about the way conversations about public education in this country have become increasingly articulated in a language in which impersonal, technical thinking dominates -- generating an educational ethos in which ethics as a category of discussion is largely suppressed. The liberal language of social action and social critique has been more and more reduced to a language of social control. But even those conversations which seem to affirm human agency and assert liberal values become emptied of their content when they are used inauthentically. The same words that can be used in a genuine, meaningful public debate can also be used to silence. Earlier in the last century, the American philosopher and educator, John Dewey expressed this concern when he wrote:

Even when the words remain the same they mean something very different when they are uttered by a minority struggling against repressive measures and when expressed by a group that, having attained power, then uses ideas that were once weapons of emancipation as instruments for keeping the power and wealth it has obtained. Ideas that at one time are means of producing social change assume another guise when they are used as a means of preventing further social change.1

I pondered with my young audience about the nature of a more authentic conversation. For one thing, a conversation is not something that can be received or transmitted from one person to another; it has to be entered into; it has to be engaged in. Furthermore, it establishes a certain kind of relationship between us and the other - a relationship in which both remain as subjects and neither are objectified and dehumanized by being made into an object for the other. Essentially, there are two features I distinguished: 

First, to enter into a true conversation requires us to really hear the other. We often listen but we seldom really hear. To understand the world of the other, whether the other is in the present or in the past, is to understand the ways the other has come to give meaning to our common experience, to understand the categories and concepts that shape its sense of social reality. It means to see the other, as much as is possible, from the inside - from a different reference point from our own. As the philosopher, Cora Diamond describes it, "Coming to understand a conceptual life other than our own involves exercise of concepts belonging to that life. When I understand what you say, I am using concepts internal to your thought."2 It is to appreciate what it means for persons or cultures to have such concepts as live notions governing their being in the world.

For example, only now are many of us beginning to comprehend our fragile relationship with our planet as the ozone slowly depletes and our rivers and lakes pollute. Our 19th century optimism about progress, science and technology, our dominion over the earth left us with a language and a conceptual framework that blocked us from seeing another way of relating to the earth. But ironically, it is a way that Jamake Highwater, of the Blackfeet Nation, talks about in his book, The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America.3 When one enters into his world, words like "wilderness" take on a whole different meaning. Indeed, Highwater talks about the alienation he felt in seeing the way certain ideas he had grown up with found their way into English words. When thinking about what is implied by our word, "wilderness," he writes, "After all, the forest is not 'wild' in the sense that it is something needing to be tamed or controlled and harnessed. For Blackfeet Indians, the forest is the natural state of the world. It is the cities that are wild and seem to need 'taming.' For most primal peoples the earth is so marvelous that the connotation of it requires it to be spelled in English with a capital 'E.' How perplexing it is to discover two English synonyms for Earth - 'soil' and 'dirt' - used to describe uncleanliness, soiled and dirty. And how upsetting it is to discover that the word 'dirty' in English is also used to depict obscenities!"4 What does it mean to see the world with the conceptual framework governing Jamake Highwater's vision of the world? By entering Highwater's world, I see a different way of relating to the earth - a relationship characterized by awe and respect rather than ownership and exploitation. In a film featuring Jamake Highwater, he talked about taking his mother to New York City for her first visit and he showed her all the usual landmarks including the famous Central Park. Central Park is like a little oasis in the center of Manhattan with all the huge skyscrapers and the hustle and bustle of the city surrounding it. When he asked his mother what her impressions were, she thought for a moment and then said, "I see they even put their trees on a reservation." In all the years that I lived in New York, I had never really thought of it that way.

But an authentic conversation requires more than entering into the world of the other for I could simply use that new understanding to exploit the other, or perhaps, more benignly, to simply bring the other within my own framework of understanding rather than expanding my understanding to include the other. I'd like to suggest that to enter into a true conversation, I must be willing to allow the understanding that I gain from that encounter to question my own conventional and habitual ways of seeing - to expand the horizon of my understanding by rendering aspects of my own world problematic as a result of that encounter.

In a very real sense a true conversation allows us to see ourselves for the first time. We are all born into a world that acculturates and socializes us into certain ways of seeing. Indeed, even the language we learn contains within it the structures and categories that give meaning to our experience. Our culture provides us with the lens - or the pair of glasses - that we use to make the world intelligible to us. But that same pair of glasses can also trap us from seeing the world in other ways. It becomes our frame of reference and begins to be taken for granted to the point that its control over our perceptions of the world is no longer seen. It becomes what we see with but cannot see through. In fact, it begins to be experienced as natural, as part of the natural scheme of things, rather than as a human and social construct. In an authentic conversation with the other, the hidden assumptions and cultural categories that have been largely taken for granted can suddenly be brought to the surface and revealed to our consciousness as only one of many possibilities. It can reveal ourselves to ourselves, but unfortunately, this self-revelation is not always comfortable as any proponent in a Socratic dialogue was soon to find out.

In fact, history has shown different responses that we make to conversations that begin to strip the fabric of the selves that we have created, that begin to question the certainties that we have lived by, that begin to make our conventional ways of seeing no longer tenable for us. One response is to go into denial - to deny the truths that are slowly coming to the surface of our consciousness - to deny that which makes us feel uncomfortable. Another response is to withdraw -- to retreat from the conversation completely. A third response, and one that unfortunately happens with too great a frequency, is to become defensive and to attack the other. But a fourth response is possible also, if we have the courage, if we have the concern, if we have the wisdom. There is the possibility for us and the other to reconstruct and reconstitute a new social reality which encompasses our new understanding and provides the conditions for a more ethical and humane existence. Indeed, the philosopher, John Dewey equated education itself with a continuous reconstruction and reorganization of our social experience - a reconstruction of the conditions of our lives.5

In many ways, the notion of a conversation can be a very powerful metaphor for the process of education itself. For education is an invitation into the conversation of life. It is something that cannot be merely received; it must be entered into; it must be engaged in; often it must be reclaimed, especially, those voices that have been neglected and silenced in the past. It is a conversation not merely about making a living, but a conversation about the kinds of lives that are worth living and the kinds of society that can make those lives possible.

Unfortunately, education can only invite us into the conversation; it cannot guarantee that we accept the invitation. Too often we can go through the motions of life without really engaging in it. We can easily begin to see our education, for example, as an accumulation of university credits without ever asking ourselves what we are becoming as result of our education - what we are allowing ourselves to be influenced by. Even in the darkest moments of our own history, too many people and too many institutions remained silent when they should not have. Even universities offered little moral resistance to the barbarism that engulfed much of our world in the last century. I remember a haunting passage in George Steiner's book. Language and Silence.6 Unlike writers like Matthew Arnold who could assert confidently that our education, especially our education in the literary and philosophical traditions, could humanize us, Steiner was less convinced as he recalled how easily people educated in what he called the "culture of traditional humanism" could read the poetry of Goethe and Rilke the night before they sent others to their deaths in gas chambers.

That was the conversation that Dr. King had with my generation as he struggled with the injustices and the inhumanity of his time and called upon us to face the moral blindness of our age and to fulfill this nation's dream of social justice. It left me with the questions that I shared with this new generation on that commencement day. I asked them to think about what our education demands of us? Is it enough to have some knowledge of society but not feel its injustices? To know some science but not care about the uses to which it is put? To become technically proficient and yet be blinded to the moral context in which our technical expertise will affect the lives of people? To understand something about economics but not care that huge numbers of our children are now living in poverty in this country? What is our responsibility in continuing the conversation? What is our responsibility in awakening others to these questions? What is our responsibility in making the institutions we enter more responsive to human needs? What is our responsibility in elevating the public debate in this country by raising the quality of its arguments and deepening an understanding of its moral significance?

I told my young audience that morning that it was their conversation now --- if they chose to enter into it -- if they chose to engage in it. I wished them well on their journey and on the choices they would make in their lives.

One of the unknown consequences of our words as teachers is to never really know whom we reach. I do know how I was reached that day in 1963 when I heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. at my own commencement. This journal and its blog are a testimony to that witness.

1. John Dewey, "The Future of Liberalism," in The Collected Works. Later Works. 1934, pp. 255-277.

2. Cora Diamond, "Losing Your Concepts," Ethics 98 (January 1988): 276.

3. Jamake Highwater, The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America (New York: Harper and Row, 1981).

4. Ibid., p. 5.

5. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: The Free Press, 1966).

6. George Steiner. Language and Silence: Essavs on LanguageLiterature and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1972).

Friday, December 23, 2022

ACLU's Win Against Florida's Stop W.O.K.E. Act: What the Judge's Order Could Mean for Challenges to Censorship Efforts Nationwide

Editor:  In our continuing effort to keep our readers informed, we are reprinting this article under the American Civil Liberties Union fair use policy.

Copyright [2022] American Civil Liberties Union.

Originally posted by the ACLU at


Lessons Learned from Our Classroom Censorship Win Against Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. Act

Here’s what the judge’s order could mean for challenges to censorship efforts nationwide.


Leah Watson,

Senior Staff Attorney,

ACLU's Racial Justice Program

November 29, 2022


Earlier this month, a federal judge blocked Florida from enforcing the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids Act (Stop W.O.K.E. Act) in the state’s colleges and universities. Florida is just one of over a dozen states across the country that have passed laws censoring discussions around race and gender in the classroom, and this is the first time a court has ruled that this type of classroom censorship law is unconstitutional. This preliminary victory could present an opportunity to bolster similar challenges to classroom censorship efforts nationwide.

The order came in a lawsuit we filed on behalf of seven instructors and one student in colleges and universities across Florida to challenge the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which limits the ways concepts related to systemic racism and sex discrimination can be discussed in teaching or conducting training in workplaces or schools. The concepts were parroted from Executive Order 13950, issued by then President Trump and rescinded by President Biden, and have been incorporated in similar classroom censorship laws introduced and passed in other states.

We argued the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments because it restricts instructors from teaching and students from learning certain viewpoints, the law is unconstitutionally vague, and it intentionally discriminates against Black instructors and students. The order describes the law as “positively dystopian,” and makes the following key findings that could be leveraged to challenge similar classroom censorship legislation in other states:

1) Instruction in higher education is protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom.

In response to our lawsuit, Florida terrifyingly asserted that it had the absolute right to control what educators can teach because it is government speech, noting that university professors are public employees. This claim contradicts the longstanding recognition that academic freedom is a “special concern” of the First Amendment. In the university setting, this means the First Amendment protects universities’ and professors’ right to make teaching choices without government censorship targeting disfavored viewpoints. The state’s position that university instructors are “simply the state’s mouthpieces” could have dangerous consequences, including allowing the state to literally dictate lessons and have educators simply read from a script. The order held that educators’ First Amendment right to teach concepts prohibited by the Stop W.O.K.E. Act far outweighed the state’s interest in indoctrinating students to its preferred viewpoint.

2) University students have their own First Amendment right to receive information — including concepts related to racism and sexism prohibited by the Stop W.O.K.E. Act.

The order recognized that the First Amendment protects not only the right to speak, but also the right to receive information. In the higher education context, the court held that the scope of a student’s First Amendment right to receive information corresponds to the instructors’ First Amendment right to share.

3) Like the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, other classroom censorship laws are vulnerable to challenge as unconstitutional, viewpoint-based restrictions.

The Stop W.O.K.E. Act limited instruction to viewpoints that the legislature agreed with, even when those viewpoints contradict research, academic scholarship, and foundational understandings of academic disciplines. Based on their academic training and research, our professor plaintiffs teach that some people are disadvantaged in America, and particularly in the criminal legal system, due to their race; describe the existence of “white privilege” and its impact in society; and advocate for affirmative action to ensure campus diversity. The Stop W.O.K.E. Act forced our professor plaintiffs to choose between teaching these evidence-supported concepts, which are foundational in their field, or censoring their viewpoints to comply with the law. As Judge Mark Walker noted, “[t]he law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints,” in contravention of the First Amendment.

4) The Stop W.O.K.E. Act was unconstitutionally vague on various grounds.

First, the eight concepts prohibited by the law are vague. The order found that some of the prohibited concepts were impossible to interpret within the context of university instruction because of its complicated wording or ambiguous meaning. For example, the law permits discussion of these concepts if presented in an objective manner and without endorsement. However, the state argued that any promotion of the prohibited concepts would violate the law, so the state’s interpretation of “objectivity” was ambiguous because it only permits educators to present the concepts in a negative light. The court noted that professors could not organize a debate about the merits of affirmative action because any speaker that argued in favor of affirmative action would violate the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. The court also recognized that the lack of explicit standards about “objectivity” would allow arbitrary, and potentially discriminatory, enforcement of the law.

5) The state’s attempts to justify the censorship as an antidiscrimination effort to reduce racism was a failed effort.

“Defendants try to dress up the State of Florida’s interest as a public employer and educator as prohibiting discrimination in university classrooms, but this does not give defendants a safe harbor in which to enforce viewpoint-based restrictions targeting protected speech,” wrote Judge Walker. Arguing that the Stop W.O.K.E. Act is an anti-discrimination law is a red herring. To be clear, education gag orders do not serve antidiscrimination purposes. They are thinly veiled speech restrictions without any attempt to limit discriminatory actions.

We are currently challenging classroom censorship laws in Florida, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire, and hope these findings will bolster these challenges and censorship efforts across the nation. We will not stop fighting for students’ and educators’ right to teach and learn free from state censorship and discrimination.