Bill to require controversial documentary in schools gets a House sponsor

The legislation would require a divisive documentary to be shown.
Published December 11 2014
Updated December 11 2014

An effort to require students in Florida public schools to watch a controversial documentary by conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza gained ground this week with the support of a state House member.

Rep. Neil Combee, a Lakeland Republican, filed a bill seeking to mandate that all eighth- and 11th-grade students view the film America: Imagine the World Without Her. His legislation is identical to a measure filed by Sen. Alan Hays in November.

Hays, a Umatilla Republican, received heavy criticism that he was foisting propaganda on children when he announced his plan. But legislation in just one chamber doesn't go far.

Its appearance in the House could give it wings, although some key lawmakers have suggested the proposal overreaches by being too prescriptive.

"Not to say the Legislature shouldn't create objectives" for schools, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said. "But how to get there and what to teach to get there is not something the Legislature needs to engage in."

Hays made similar arguments last year when attempting to end the state's role in adopting school textbooks. But in this case, he argued, parents would have control by having the ability to opt out of the showing if they're opposed to the film.

When he first began watching the film, Hays said he was flabbergasted: The narrator "was interviewing those who were espousing what I consider anti-American views."

By the time the documentary ended 105 minutes later, he had a completely different thought.

"I looked at my wife and I said, 'Every student in America needs to see this movie.' " Hays praised its message of American exceptionalism.

In Florida, pieces of legislation — no matter how weighty or trivial — have little chance of adoption without a companion in the opposite chamber. So even while critics vilified Hays' bill, they knew it wouldn't stand on its own.

Combee's bill changes that.

"Sen. Hays asked me if I would sponsor it in the House," Combee said. "I saw the movie when it first came out. I thought it was very good. I don't see any harm in showing it in schools."

There are others who do.

Peter Montgomery of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way wrote about the proposal, which appears to be the only one of its kind in the nation, on his organization's blog. He called it a terrible idea.

The movie is filled with "offensive and inflammatory material that could cause a lot of problems in the classroom," Montgomery said, calling it a political diatribe aimed at hurting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In the film, D'Souza aims to discredit what he considers the philosophy of left-wing progressive Democratic politics, taught in schools, that the U.S. society is based on theft and plunder. He says he wants to debunk the arguments.

D'Souza argues, for instance, that American Indians couldn't adhere to treaties and were killing one another anyway.

On the subject of slavery, he writes in his book of the same name: "Did America owe something to the slaves whose labor had been stolen?" Yes, he states, but "that debt . . . is best discharged through memory, because the slaves are dead and their descendants are better off as a consequence of their ancestors being hauled from Africa to America."

D'Souza did not respond to an email request for comment.

Said Montgomery: "Even if the movie were credible, it's not a great idea to have legislators dictate what goes on in the classroom."

That's a point educators often make when confronted with new rounds of legislative mandates that eat up classroom time.

Hays made a similar argument with his textbook bill last year. The senator said leaders in some districts claimed they had no control over book selection because the Florida Department of Education had approved the materials.

Some conservative groups challenged the books because of their references to Islam. Hays, no stranger to such controversies, jumped in with his bill — now law — granting more local control over instructional materials.

He acknowledged the seeming contradiction between his textbook bill and the movie legislation, but said they're not really different in their approach.

"The overriding thing behind the instructional materials bill was to force local control. I wanted to put more control in the hands of the community," he said. "This (movie) bill does exactly that. It goes even further and puts control in the hands of the parents" by allowing them to opt out.

Legg expressed reluctance to move forward with such a concept. But he wouldn't say "never" to the bill's chances.

Hays urged doubters to do more than read critics' reviews before taking sides.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.