Jim Dey | Free-speech proponent has expanded her field of fire

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Many people have found themselves stuck on the sidelines as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic that turned life as most people knew it upside down.

But Nicole Neily, a University of Illinois graduate from the Chicago area and activist on behalf of free speech, took a different approach.

“I decided to double my workload,” said Neily, a 40-year-old mother of two who earned her UI degree in 2002.

She gave up her duties as the executive director of Speech First, a watchdog group that’s filed multiple lawsuits against colleges and universities for suspected free-speech violations.

Then she shifted her attention to K-12 education, where she is targeting the quickly spreading effort to introduce what’s called “Critical Race Theory” into primary and secondary education.

The U.S. Education Department, which promotes and funds the new curriculum, requires teachers to emphasize racial identities and teach the tenets of the theory, which includes systemic racism and discriminatory policy and practice in American history.

Like President Joe Biden and his administration, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education are enthusiastic backers of the approach. But Neily is aligned with opponents who perceive the race-based curriculum as a vehicle “that is not only at war with basic American values, but with our kids’ happiness and ability to succeed in life.”

“Couched in vague slogans such as ‘social justice,’ the new curriculum divides our children into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ groups,” said Neily’s new group, Parents Defending Education. “To one, it teaches guilt and shame. To the other, grievance and anger. To all students, it spreads unhappiness, radicalism and failure.”

Neily formed the organization (defendinged.org) after she read a news story about a Chicago-area superintendent who wanted to reopen schools that had been closed because of the pandemic, but only to students who were members of favored minority groups.

Her organization has already made an impact, drawing both critics and backers.

“I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support,” she said.

But media attention cuts both ways. Neily said she has been subject to the usual race-based name-calling and worse.

“I got a death threat last week,” she recalled.

Neily described the Virginia-based organization as an organization run by working mothers. It has no headquarters, just a post office box for mail.

She said the organization’s goals are to empower parents so they know what their rights are when it comes to challenging school district curricula, expose what’s happening in schools so parents are aware of what’s being taught and engage parents so they can organize effective opposition.

“Politics goes to he who shows up,” said Neily, citing the age-old truth that those who choose not to participate in the democratic process will always lose out to those who do.

Neily has made it a lifelong practice to educate herself and participate in civic life. As a UI student, she and others distributed “Know Your Rights” cards to over 8,000 sorority members.

She attributes her passion for individual rights to the fact that her Japanese American grandparents were among those interned during World War II. Members of that group were perceived, mistakenly, as security risks in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that served as the catalyst for U.S. involvement in World War II.

Despite that ugly chapter in American history, Neily is an enthusiastic supporter of this country, a characteristic she notes is common to immigrant families who come to the U.S. seeking a better life.

“We talk to a lot of first-generation Americans. They say, ‘Don’t tell me that being on time is racist.’ Teach my child math so he can go to MIT,” she said.

The reference to “being on time” stems from alleged negative manifestations of “White privilege” that put some minorities at a disadvantage.

Proponents of that viewpoint also cite other qualities — like speaking proper English — as promoting White supremacy.

Critics, of course, contend those attributes are race-neutral, simply reflecting behaviors that are useful in achieving a successful life.

Despite involvement in her new organization, Neily remains committed to Speech First. The organization has sued a number of colleges and universities, including the UI and the University of Michigan, to achieve changes in campus speech policies.

Now, however, Neily has embarked on a new challenge aimed at shining a light on what is proving to be a contentious issue from coast to coast.

“This is not just a New York and California problem,” she said.

via The News-Gazette

June 25, 2021 at 03:53PM

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