TEXAS VIEW: Forget, for a moment, the Alamo. Remember the First Amendment

THE POINT: Lieutenant governor has no right to shut down ideas shared and debated at a public forum.

Silencing journalists and scholars, chasing dissent from the public square, distorting history to serve an ideological narrative — it’s the stuff of autocrats, and now, the reprehensible behavior of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Texans of all stripes should be deeply troubled by Patrick’s announcement last week that he used his authority, as the state’s No. 2 elected official, to cancel a virtual panel discussion he didn’t like at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, a public institution supported in part by taxpayer dollars.

The topic was a new book about the Alamo, but that is beside the point. It’s not the lieutenant governor’s job to decide which ideas can be shared and debated at a public forum. It’s not his job to tell Texans what to think.

The book at the heart of this controversy, “Forget the Alamo,” casts a critical eye on Texas’ founding fathers, suggesting their desire to keep slaves helped fuel their push for independence from Mexico, which opposed slavery. That account — supported by decades of scholarship, largely by Latino historians whose work deserves greater public recognition — runs counter to the simplistic tale that generations of Texas students have learned in school, the story celebrating the white heroes of the Alamo while largely ignoring the contributions of Tejano allies and the thorny role of slavery.

The well-documented book is not, as Patrick alleged on Twitter, a “fact-free rewriting of TX history.” And it’s not solely about history. The book by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford also probes the present-day politics around the storytelling of the Alamo, suggesting Patrick used “manufactured outrage” over the Alamo restoration plan to undercut Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whom he viewed as a political rival.

Patrick’s push to cancel the book discussion went beyond preserving an idealized narrative of Texas’ founding fathers. It silenced an examination of Patrick’s own efforts to capitalize on that narrative — efforts that could cost Texas taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars if Patrick follows through on his pledge for sizable state funding for an Alamo museum, housing what the book’s authors argue is a collection of Alamo memorabilia of dubious authenticity.

For months now we’ve heard Republican gripes about “cancel culture,” a catchall condemnation for everything from the repackaging of Mr. Potato Head to the efforts by social media companies to reduce the spread of conspiracy theories on their private platforms. Simmering with faux outrage, Republicans have appeared on TV, penned guest columns and fired off fundraising emails — absurdly complaining to the masses that they were being muzzled.

But what Patrick gave us last week was a textbook case of real censorship, a clear case of the government stifling free speech. Patrick abused his authority as a member of the State Preservation Board to cancel an event at a public institution because he disagreed with the message. The only silver lining is that Patrick’s effort backfired spectacularly, drawing national attention to the topic and driving book sales through the roof. The publisher, according to one of the authors, has ordered two more printings.

Forget, for a moment, the Alamo. Remember, instead, the First Amendment. Remember that it was the first enumeration of Americans’ protected rights for a reason: The free exchange of ideas, even difficult or unpopular ones, is the oxygen that keeps democracy alive. We cannot govern ourselves if our government leaders dictate what’s fact and what’s not, what can be discussed and what’s forbidden.

And yet our state leaders keep trying. Last month Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill creating the “1836 Project,” a thinly disguised propaganda campaign about “why Texas became so exceptional in the first place.” He also signed a bill limiting the ways that race and current events can be discussed in public schools, tapping into the ginned-up debate over critical race theory — a topic he’s urged lawmakers to revisit in the special session, alongside the supposed censorship of conservatives on social media.

Abbott and GOP lawmakers have repeatedly tried to curtail an honest, nuanced examination of our state’s history, opting for indoctrination over discourse. This, on top of a barrage of bills last session in which the Legislature tried to dictate a range of decisions, from personal medical care to police funding levels, that Texans and local communities should be free to make for themselves.

Enough already. Patrick is free to disagree with the authors of any book. Better yet, he’s free to challenge the authors to explain and defend their findings. Either way, Texans deserve to have the discussion. The lieutenant governor had no right to shut it down.

Austin American-Statesman