From unconstitutional to outrageous

Attacks on journalists in Kansas, educators in Arkansas this past weekend were attacks on all of us

August 15, 2023 7:00 am
Sen. Breanne Davis of Russellville, lead sponsor of Senate Bill 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, looks at Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, right, as he answers questions about the bill during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning, Feb. 22, 2023, in Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Sen. Breanne Davis of Russellville looks at Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, right, as he answers questions about the LEARNS Act during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee Feb. 22, 2023 in Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

“Police stage ‘chilling’ raid on Marion County newspaper, seizing computers, records and cellphones” – Kansas Reflector headline on Friday, Aug. 11.

“Arkansas education department nixes AP African American Studies course at last minute” – Arkansas Times headline on Saturday, Aug. 12.


Those two headlines refer to separate events but encompass a single theme — attacks on basic American values: freedom of thought and speech and freedom of the press.

The police raid effectively shut down the weekly newspaper in Marion, Kansas, and raised alarms nationwide about police overreach and possible violations of federal law and First Amendment protections for newsgathering. 

The extremely rare invasion of a newsroom by law enforcement prompted condemnation from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 34 news organizations. One of the co-signers, the Society of Professional Journalists, pledged up to $20,000 to help the Marion County Record with its legal defense expenses. (Disclosure: I am a member and a former national president of SPJ.)

In Arkansas, the state Department of Education’s sudden decision to remove an Advanced Placement course from its approved list for graduation credit sent a not-so-subtle and insidious message to educators and students alike regarding freedom of thought and speech.

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The AP African American Studies course had been under ADE scrutiny since Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders ordered the agency to scour curricula and other educational material for evidence of “indoctrination” and “critical race theory.” Her signature legislation the LEARNS Act contains a section describing what is meant and what isn’t meant by the vague terms. Read it and see if you don’t think it’s still vague.

When Education Secretary Jacob Oliva and the ADE finally tried to tamp down the flames of indignation regarding the AP course on Monday, indoctrination was at the top of the excuses offered.

“The department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination,” an ADE statement said. It adds that the AP African American Studies course is not a history course and is still in a pilot phase subject to revisions.

 “Arkansas law contains provisions regarding prohibited topics. … we cannot approve a pilot that may unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law,” the ADE said.

Former state Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock pointed out on Twitter Monday that the “pilot” meets all of the qualifications of a for-credit course.

Besides, the African American Studies curriculum is out there for anyone to read, and ADE officials could review it and point to any “indoctrination” if they want to support their decision.

What isn’t noted in the department’s statement is that AP courses are intended to be college-level classes that engage students beyond the rote memorization of historical facts. The African American Studies course is a multi-disciplinary survey of not only Black history, but the art and culture of Africans and African Americans through literature, original documents and the experiences that shaped efforts to obtain racial equality and equity.

 Regardless, the message seems clear: Don’t dare teach Arkansas’ brightest young minds how to think for themselves and explore the world outside their homes and towns. To quote Sanders’ favorite line: “Teach them how to think. Not what to think.”

And if you think angst and anger over a high school course or a police raid of a newspaper in another state is just about teachers and journalists protecting their own, think again.

These are your freedoms under attack. Educators and journalists are fighting not just for their freedoms but yours. Each time students and journalists are censored, or kept from using free inquiry to discover whether something is true or not, you are the loser.


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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.