Tom Zirpoli: One person’s freedom is another person’s prison | COMMENTARY

Sola Mahfouz, author of “Defiant Dreams: The Journey of an Afghan Girl Who Risked Everything for Education,” wrote a column in The New York Times asking “What is freedom, exactly?”

She writes about the Soviet Union, which vowed to “free Afghans from feudalism, backwardness and inequality,” to the “freedom fighters” of the George W. Bush administration in the United States and now the Taliban, which says it is fighting for independence and freedom from foreign interference. Mahfouz notes that what is done in the name of freedom in Afghanistan frequently comes at the cost of individual freedom for many of its citizens, especially women and other minorities.


The words “freedom” and “rights” get thrown around a lot in the U.S., too, as Republican politicians work overtime to push their agenda against the rights of a majority of Americans. A recent law in Iowa, for example, which Republican legislators refer to as a “parental rights bill,” literally removes the rights of parents and schoolteachers to make decisions on appropriate books for their children in public spaces.

Reading the law, you quickly discover it doesn’t protect parental rights, as the title suggests. Rather, it removes parental rights, along with the professional judgment of certified teachers and librarians, to make decisions on what their children can read in publicly funded schools and libraries. Government officials, or their appointees — not parents — decide. And this is happening across the nation in Republican-controlled states.


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, not parents, has made the decision that books in Florida’s schools and libraries cannot discuss discrimination based upon race, religion or any other characteristic that would make children — read white children — feel “uncomfortable.” This is part of his anti-woke campaign as he runs for president.

For example, the book titled “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” by Jonah Winter and Raul Colon, had to be removed from school libraries because it discusses Clemente’s experience in professional baseball.

Clemente was the first minority (Afro-Puerto Rican) to play Major League Baseball and faced significant discrimination, especially at the start of his professional career. According to his son, Roberto Clemente Jr., “His story is his story. He went through racism. It’s something that can’t be changed.” Clemente’s story is, in fact, part of American history.

Florida’s parents, not Florida’s government, should decide if their children can read a book about Clemente’s life. Also, one has to wonder what DeSantis and his fellow book-banning Republicans are trying to hide from our children about American history.

As stated by Bridgette Exman, a former English teacher and the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for public schools in Mason City, Iowa: “I have a million better things to do with my time than keep kids from books. Our district has not had a formal challenge to a book in our libraries in over two decades, indicating that parents are not worried about what is on the shelves.

“I want all the parents in our country to be actively making the decisions they believe are best for their children. At the same time…we must protect our public schools from the political agendas that are hobbling them.”

Education is not the only area where Republicans are trying to limit the rights of parents. The same is true for parents who have transgender children. How parents deal with these difficult issues with their children should remain between them and their children, along with the clinical and professional advice of medical providers.

Their lives are challenging enough without the state politicizing childrens’ sexuality. The government should protect the parental rights and freedom of all of its citizens, not just citizens who agree with their minority ideology on sexual orientation.


Then, of course, there is the issue of abortion. Not satisfied with their restrictions limiting abortion within their own state borders, Republicans are now trying to control what their female citizens can do in other states. Republican legislators are passing laws across the nation limiting travel for pregnant women trying to access services in states where abortion is legal.

In Alabama, the attorney general wants to prosecute people who help women travel out of state to obtain an abortion. Trying to tell women what they can do outside of their jurisdiction is pretty scary stuff.

But Caroline Kitchener, a reporter for the Washington Post, found that at least 51 jurisdictions in Texas have made it illegal to transport anyone on their roads to get an abortion. Kitchener writes that Republicans are literally trying to restrict pregnant women from traveling and keep them prisoners within their home states. Historian Heather Richardson Cox says Republicans are trying to “assert power over citizens in a way that is commonly associated with authoritarian governments.”

One can only imagine how Republicans might enforce these travel laws. Will they set up roadblocks on state roads to screen for pregnant women trying to escape their state for an abortion? Will pregnant women be mandated to where ankle bracelets so their travel can be monitored?

Richardson-Cox notes that the right to travel inside and outside of the United States “is guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the Constitution. But authoritarian countries often restrict travel for their subjects outside their borders out of concern that exposure to freer countries will weaken the authority of the government at home.”

One state legislator in Texas said he knew the travel restrictions he supported were unconstitutional, but he thought the law would scare pregnant women enough to keep them home.


No wonder Republicans are so enamored with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world dictators. Their primary goal of governance — control — is very similar.

Tom Zirpoli is the Laurence J. Adams Distinguished Chair in Special Education Emeritus at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears on Wednesday. Email him at