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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s hunt for ‘porn’ in public schools is laughable but not without consequences

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Gov. Greg Abbott has increasingly played to the far-right base as he tries to stave off challenges in the Republican primary. - INSTAGRAM / GOVERNORABBOTT
  • Instagram / governorabbott
  • Gov. Greg Abbott has increasingly played to the far-right base as he tries to stave off challenges in the Republican primary.
The following is Current Events, a column of opinion and analysis.

It’s tempting to write off Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s absurd call for criminal charges against teachers and school librarians who supply “pornographic” materials to kids as mere political theater.

After all, it’s an utter joke from a legal standpoint. Abbott issued his demand last week in a letter to the Texas Education Agency, which has no law enforcement personnel. Further, the two books the governor has so far cited as evidence of “obscene” material in Texas schools wouldn’t qualify under U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Texans have also witnessed a cavalcade of stunts from Abbott in recent months as he looks to stave off challenges from far-right candidates in the upcoming Republican primary. Those range from his “steel wall” of DPS vehicles at the border to a San Antonio press conference where he claimed with no proof that a federal migrant shelter was abusing teens.

Yes, like those grabs for attention, Abbott’s letter to the TEA is pure look-at-me grandstanding. Legal and political experts say there’s little chance school employees will be jailed because of his call to prosecute alleged campus porn pushers “to the fullest extent of the law.”

“I suppose he could ask the TEA to do anything,” said Michael S. Ariens, a St. Mary’s University Law School expert in constitutional law. “The question is what the TEA will do with it. I’m guessing the answer is: as little as possible.

But, as with much of Abbott’s hard-right posturing, there will be damage left in the letter’s wake.

Just as the “steel wall” photo op had the real-world consequences of diluting law enforcement resources and draining public coffers, the governor’s anti-“porn” crusade has repercussions for Texas’ already beleaguered education system.

The disruption comes as students, educators and parents muddle through another school year made even more trying by the pandemic. It also instigates more chaos for districts already dealing with angry anti-mask diatribes and board meetings overtaken by Qanon conspiracy theories and threats against educators.

Abbott’s TEA letter followed days after Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s loss in the Virginia gubernatorial election. The timing is no accident, according to political observers. McAuliffe’s trouncing came after he became a target of growing parental ire by saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

“This investigation will politicize Texas’s education system, send a deeply alarming message of exclusion to LGBTQ+ students, and treat librarians and teachers as potential criminals for doing their jobs,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education in a statement emailed to the Current. “Gov. Abbott claims that he is making these moves to protect children, but instead he is disrupting their education for political gain.”

To Friedman’s point, Abbott’s crusade comes as LGBTQ+ students and students of color face increasing marginalization in Texas schools. This year, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory and limiting the participation of transgender athletes in school sports.

The letter and its timing demonstrate the governor’s willingness to weaponize chaos for his own political gain. Rather than attempt to solve any of the real problems plaguing Texas schools, it creates one to villainize educators who have struggled to do their best during one of the most difficult times in their careers.

Further, Abbott’s directive to the TEA shows just how disingenuous he was as he proclaimed himself a champion of free speech by prioritizing a bill passed by Texas lawmakers that bars social media networks from “censoring” the voices of right-wing users.

Indeed, the letter comes against a backdrop of national fervor to ban controversial material from school campuses.

This month, two members of Virginia’s Spotsylvania County School Board said its vote to ban “sexually explicit” books from library shelves didn’t go far enough. They wanted to see the material burned.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, last week told the New York Times that she’s endured a “steady hum of censorship” during her 20 years with the group. “But I’ve never seen the number of challenges we’ve seen this year.”

Clearly, Abbott’s concern for free speech, like his concern for Texas’ schools and children, is subservient to one top priority: his own political gain.

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