School Boards Are the Front Line in America’s Culture War

Public gatherings of local officials have always been battlegrounds, but now those fights play out online for millions of viewers.
August 18, 2021, 1:00pm
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Image: Getty Images

A good way to go viral right now is to act unhinged at a public school board hearing. At these meetings, a mix of random people and more famous right-wing provocateurs are spouting disinformation, screaming, protesting, and otherwise yammering on about mask mandates, vaccines, and critical race theory. These typically boring and routine meetings of local government officials have become ground zero for America’s culture war. 

In the last few weeks, conservative political commentator Clay Travis recently told the Williamson County School Board in Franklin, Tennessee that kids were more likely to be struck by lightning than contract COVID. His performance was met with raucous applause from onlookers. In Indiana, an antivax doctor named Dan Stock became a right-wing hero for making the confusing (and false) argument that vaccines have somehow made COVID worse. 

Notably, online platforms like YouTube and Facebook seemingly have no idea how to moderate this sort of content. Some clips of Stock's rant were deleted by YouTube and labeled as "false" by Facebook. But the entire video of the school board meeting was not, because it was an official government proceeding. 

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“While we have clear policies to remove harmful COVID-19 misinformation, we also recognize the importance of organizations like school boards using YouTube to share recordings of open public forums, even when comments at those forums may violate our policies,” YouTube told Motherboard at the time. “This means that content like the original upload of the Mt. Vernon school board meeting stays up on YouTube. We remove re-uploads that do not include sufficient context or aim to promote misinformation.”

Whatever the culture war of the day, the school board meeting will express it in its purest form. The kind of rants and disinformation that would get you banned and ignored and social media might make you a viral star if you do it in front of a group of local officials. There's a difficult balance to strike for YouTube, but, functionally, this means anyone can go to any public meeting and say anything they want, without worrying about that clip getting deleted from the internet. People have seemingly caught on to this, because the goings on at recent school board meetings have been wild: 

Daily Wire contributor and homeschooling booster Matt Walsh attended a Nashville public school board meeting to complain about mandatory mask bans at public schools. Like Travis, the audience applauded Walsh after he was done ranting about policy that will not directly affect his homeschooled children.

In Kansas, a woman went viral after speaking at a Board of County Commissioners meeting in Johnson County. The woman stood at the lectern with a prepared statement and home-made sign that read “trafficking” hung around her neck. “I’m here for the children,” she began. “There is zero evidence that COVID-19 exists in the world. PCR tests are recalled. This is a plandemic. Fake virus. Bioweapon jab. Fake president. You will not experiment on my children. It’s always been about the children. We know you’re coming for the children. We will not comply.”

There’s hundreds of these videos catering to every conceivable political taste. Often looking at them feels like reading a nightmarish mad-lib from a future you wish you weren’t part of. Want to see Proud Boys crash a school board meeting to fight over critical race theory? Here you go. Want to watch police arrest angry community members after a school board meeting turned into a physical brawl because of proposed transgender rights policy? Watch it right here. Slippery slope arguments about mask mandates leading to government imposed laws about molesting children? It happened

Local government has always been a boring slog of perfunctory routine punctuated by breathtaking moments of public insanity. Cranks who no one will listen to come to public community meetings to unload their grievances and vent their madness. Local officials are often too polite and too confused to shut them down, opting instead to let them wind down and relent. These moments are dramatized with startling accuracy in the sitcom Parks and Recreation.

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Critical race theory and vaccine mandates have become flashpoints in America’s culture war and partisan warriors are taking up the cause of a community they believe can’t advocate for themselves: children. As a general rule, you should be wary when someone asks you to “think of the children.” 

Using the defense of children as a pretext, cranks from the world of QAnon and the anti-CRT conservative crowd have begun to target school boards as must win local political races. There is a sense among some of the political right that children are being taught all the wrong things. Some are so terrified of what’s happening in classrooms that they’re advocating for laws that undermine the First Amendment of the Constitution, while engaging in their own First Amendment-protected rights to talk at these meetings.

That’s not theory or hyperbole. Tennessee House Bill SB 0623 would ban teaching that could lead a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.” Similar bills are working their way through state government’s across the country.

This isn’t the first time this has happened in recent American history. Since the end of World War II, America has been preoccupied with what, exactly, is going on in the nation’s classrooms. In 1974, a West Virginia school board became the epicenter of a violent debate about what kids were reading in school.

According to some citizens in Kanawha County, West Virginia, at the time, the textbooks at the local schools were too liberal. The new books included multicultural studies that quoted The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Freud, and poet Alan Ginsburg. School board meetings were swamped with protestors, angry parents tried to stop the delivery of the books, and a postal worker trying to deliver books was shot.

The difference between now and then are the particulars of what’s being taught and the internet. What was once a local story that reflected on broader social movements in America has become a battleground that can go viral on social media.