Michigan governor hopeful would prosecute school boards over so-called 'explicit content'

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Republican candidate Ryan Kelley said that if elected, he would charge Michigan school boards with felonies if they failed to remove 'sexually explicit content.'

On Monday, real estate broker and Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan D. Kelley posted a video to his TikTok account to say that if elected, he would charge state school boards with felonies if they refuse to remove "sexually explicit content" from Michigan public schools.

"One of the biggest problems in Michigan public schools is the sexually explicit content that is being offered and available to students in our schools across the state of Michigan," Kelley says in the video. "Parents are showing up all over the state at school board meetings expressing their concerns, requesting that this type of material be removed from the schools, and a lot of times it falls on deaf ears to the school boards."

Kelley said that if elected governor, he would take "swift action" to charge any school boards that failed to remove such material from their schools with felonies, citing a 1978 Michigan law that made it a felony to disseminate "sexually explicit matter to a minor." Those convicted under the law can face up to two years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. This law was amended in 1999 to extend its reach to the internet.

While Kelley did not elaborate in his video on the nature of "sexually explicit content," conservatives have started using the terms "pornography" or "explicit materials" as a political dog whistle to refer to books that deal with LGBTQ issues including sexuality and gender identity. Last month, Texas Republican state Rep. Jared Patterson wrote a letter to school districts in the state asking them not to purchase books from vendors of "pornography," and specifically cited the book "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe.

Kelley has also expressed concern over Michigan students learning about racism, along with social-emotional learning, or SEL, which is aimed in part at helping students develop their sense of empathy. Kelley attended a Feb. 21 meeting of the Forest Hills Public Schools Board of Education to "make sure that our school districts are no longer teaching critical race theory, social-emotional learning or diversity, equity, and inclusion."

Kristen Plafkin, a Forest Hills mother, told the Michigan Advance that Kelley's presence at the meeting made it "feel like an election rally."

"It seemed so disrespectful and out of place for him to be there, not having a student in the district and not even speaking to the things that were actually happening in our district," Plafkin told the news outlet. "There wasn't one thing he said that was specific to Forest Hills. There were a lot of general statements like it was an election rally."

Kelley's opposition to students learning about LGBTQ rights and issues is shared by Republican officials in other states. Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, otherwise known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. This bill restricts public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with students earlier than the fourth grade. And in November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a criminal probe into allegedly "pornographic" books in public school libraries. He singled out two books, "Gender Queer" and "In the Dream House" by Carmen Maria Machado.

Kelley's promise to prosecute school boards over supposedly "explicit" materials comes at a time when school boards around the country are becoming deeply politicized and sometimes even violent. The conflicts have mainly stemmed from debates over mask mandates, racism, and LGBTQ rights. As a result, school board members have been subject to increasing threats from angry community members, including threats of violence. Last October, U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to partner with local law enforcement in investigating threats made against school board members.

Over the past two years, Kelley has been at the forefront of right-wing protests in Michigan. In June 2020, the group American Patriot Council, which Kelley co-founded, organized an event outside the state Capitol building in Lansing to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 safety measures. Kelley's group had advertised the event to "encourage armed patriots to unite."

"We're here today with a message to unite as a militia," Kelley said in a speech at the event.

Several militia members who attended the anti-lockdown protests were eventually arrested for their alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer and try her for treason.

Kelley also allegedly attended the "Stop The Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Kelley said the event was "energizing." 

"I think that event was definitely an energizing event, right?" Kelley told MLive last year. "It will live on in history, absolutely. For a lot of different things."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.