Local activists counterprotest “parental rights” movement bringing book banning to Kentucky

by Belle Townsend

Commonly referred to by critics as a dog whistle for censorship, the “parental rights” movement has been finding its footing in Kentucky. Senate Bill 5, characterized by critics as a book banning bill, passed the Kentucky House and Senate in March of 2023. 

This bill would create a complaint resolution policy, wherein parents can complain to local boards of education about material that they deem “harmful to minors.” This would require the school to make sure that students with a parent who complained about material “harmful to minors” do not have access to the complained-about material. Further, the Kentucky Department of Education would be required to model the complaint resolution policy. 

Alex Berling and Amber Hoffman, local mothers and progressive activists, got involved when they heard wind of a “Defund Public Education Rally.” This rally was held at Kenton County Public Library in November of 2022, and put on by both the Boone County Republican Party and Campbell County’s Mom’s For Liberty. Gerling and Hoffman showed up to see what was going on, along with other people who support NKY public schools. According to Berling, “The books mentioned in testimony by people in favor of SB 5 are largely books with LGBTQIA+ characters.”

Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

Berling continues, “these books are coming-of-age stories for junior high and high schools and are developmentally appropriate. SB 5 is a slippery slope into allowing one parent or group of parents to decide what books are allowed in our schools, while our students that are already marginalized, including LGBTQIA+ students, won’t be represented.”

As a critic of the bill, Berling “traced the chairs of Campbell County Mom’s For Liberty and Boone County Mom’s For Liberty to their involvement with new Boone County Kentucky State Representatives, who were all involved in SB 5.” 

Illustration: Jane Mount

Moms for Liberty is a nonprofit organization that claims to fight for parental rights in schools, and it was founded in 2021. Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media watchdog group, provides insight to Moms for Liberty and its purpose, 

“The group’s most notable GOP affiliation comes from Christian Ziegler, a vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party. Ziegler spoke to the Washington Post and praised Moms for Liberty, saying,

‘I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic. But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.’”

With Moms for Liberty mobilizing mothers in Northern Kentucky, counter protesting was as important as ever to Gerling and Hoffman. Amber Hoffman, “started coming in to speak at the board meetings regarding mandatory mask requirements, but once COVID died down, the attention turned to trans kids.”

Image credit to Moms for Liberty

Hoffman attended the Defund Public Education Rally with Gerling, and the local activists heard organizers calling teachers “terrorists” and “groomers.” As well, the leaders were discussing teachers while using buzz words like communism and CRT, which were being used to describe things like “social and emotional learning, math, and sight words.” 

Hoffman continues by tying the Rally to Moms for Liberty and also “the mothers of conservatism- who can be traced back to post World War II California.”

Further according to Hoffman, “It was there that a group of conservative moms decided to undergo the first crusade against what they perceived as progressive indoctrination in the American schools. They started pushing back what they called the progressive education agenda, and their teaching were rooted in antisemitism and anti-desegregation. It is not lost on me that their agenda and message is nearly identical to that of Moms for Liberty in 2023. With that, we continue to fight Moms for Liberty today.”

Image credit to NBC

Both Hoffman and Berling have remained involved amidst SB 5 being introduced and passing in Kentucky’s 2023 legislative session, and Alex Berling is now running for State Representative in district 64 (Kenton County, Independence, Taylor Mill, Latonia, Ryland Heights, and Visalia). Amber Hoffman remains involved in local and statewide democratic electoral organizing as the Vice President of Boone County Young Democrats and a member of the Boone County Executive Committee. 

With the passage of SB 5 and other “book banning” bills across the nation due to Moms for Liberty, historians, political scientists, and other academics are tying the banning of books with fascism and Nazism. As Gerling and Hoffman have demonstrated, fighting back against censorship and fascism happens at the local level. Although the bill in Kentucky did pass, local activists remain organizing for democratic access to public education in Kentucky. 

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