Academic Freedom Under Attack in Brazil: All in the Name of Objectivity in the Classroom

On the night Jair Messias Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil, the incoming state deputy of Santa Catarina, Ana Caroline Campagnolo, urged students to use an anonymous phone line to report "indoctrinating" professors—i.e., those expressing discontent with Bolsonaro's victory. Her push sparked memories of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, which policed education by approving school curriculums and by encouraging students to snitch on peers and professors.

But Campagnolo's inspiration was more recent: She was building on the Escola Sem Partido ("School Without Political Party") movement, which says it aims to promote objectivity in the classroom. While trying to teach objectively is certainly a sound principle, Campagnolo's effort shows how such a crusade, especially when codified into law, can impede free speech and academic freedom.

The School Without Political Party initiative was founded in 2004 and gained momentum in 2014, when corruption scandals and poor economic performance turned public opinion against the ruling Workers Party. Bolsonaro's right-wing Social Liberal Party started embracing the initiative as its own. By January 2018, 150 bills inspired by the movement had been proposed to Brazil's National Congress and state legislative houses.

Now the Chamber of Deputies' Special Commission is planning to vote on six more bills that were jointly proposed in February of 2014. (It's not clear when that vote will actually happen; it has been postponed six times this month alone.) The legislation targets both public and private schools, from preschool through the university level. It has two main goals. First, it aims to enforce the American Convention on Human Rights' Article 12, IV, which states that "parents or guardians, as the case may be, have the right to provide for the religious and moral education of their children or wards that is in accord with their own convictions." Second, it states that "gender ideology" and "sexual orientation" should not be included in the school curriculum. Professors are also prohibited from using "subliminal techniques to indoctrinate students."

And how should professors should present information on topics related to religion, sexuality, and politics? The bills are vague on that count, and that vagueness will chill a wide range of speech.

One bill proposes the insertion of a poster in every classroom from preschool through high school with a list of six duties of teachers and professors. The list includes mandates such as "the teacher shall not take advantage of their student audience to promote their own interests, opinions, or ideological religious, moral or political or partisan preferences or conceptions"; the point of the poster is to inform students about their rights. In practice, even that inoffensive-sounding rule could become a tool for repression. Ideological bias in the classroom is subject to interpretation, and the party in power is more likely to identify and crack down on bias on the part of its opponents. (Campagnolo, the very person who encouraged snitches to report professors for speaking against Bolsonaro, found herself called out for wearing Bolsonaro's campaign t-shirt during one of her classes prior to the election.)

Policy makers should respect freedom of speech, whether the topic is sexuality or issues of public policy; and the School Without Political Party movement should advance its ideas from the bottom up, without legislative action. That way, change would depend on public opinion rather than political coercion, and Brazil would avoid laws that codify censorship and only further the politicization of academia.