The right-wing campaign to censor what is read and taught at public schools, colleges, universities, and libraries across the United States is only growing more intense, as state lawmakers introduced dozens of educational gag orders in the first six weeks of 2023.
From the start of the new year through February 13, Republican lawmakers proposed 72 educational censorship bills and their Democratic counterparts unveiled two, according to an analysis published Thursday by PEN America, which updates its “Index of Educational Gag Orders” on a weekly basis. At least 85 such bills are currently live, including 11 carryovers from last year.
As the free speech organization previously documented, more than 190 bills aimed at limiting the ability of educators and students to discuss the production of and resistance to myriad inequalities throughout U.S. history—including several proposals to establish so-called “tip lines” that would enable parents to punish school districts or individual teachers—were introduced in dozens of states in 2021 and 2022, with all but one authored by Republicans. In the past two years, 19 laws restricting the teaching of racism, gender, and sexuality were enacted in more than a dozen GOP-controlled states, plus eight measures imposed without legislation.
“The early returns from the 2023 legislative sessions suggest that lawmakers’ fervor to censor and ban content from educational institutions has not abated. Far from it,” four PEN America experts wrote Thursday. “They have outdone one another in a race to the bottom, finding new, more extreme, and more conspiratorial ways to impose censorious government dictates on teaching and learning.”
The analysis highlights trends in educational gag orders across four major categories: efforts to prohibit teaching about race, racism, and U.S. history; expanding censorship of sexuality and gender; legislation targeting higher education institutions; and particularly extreme proposals motivated by the growing influence of conspiracy theories.
Researchers found that so far this year, lawmakers have unveiled:
- 50 educational gag orders across 16 states restricting classroom instruction about the history of racism in America;
- 27 bills across 14 states that mirror Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, censoring public schools from offering any instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity—11 of which ban instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity altogether;
- 20 bills across 13 states that specifically restrict higher education classroom instruction;
- 23 bills across 14 states that censor or restrict minors from seeing drag performances; and
- 19 bills across 12 states that would remove exemptions for librarians and educators from being charged with violations of state obscenity laws.
Efforts to prohibit teaching about race, racism, and U.S. history
Many legislative attempts to undermine teaching about racism “include language copied from” former President Donald Trump’s 2020 Executive Order 13950, which has since been revoked by President Joe Biden but previously barred certain so-called “divisive concepts” from being used in federal trainings, the PEN America experts observed. “Despite the free speech concerns surrounding that language, this type of bill continues to be introduced in 2023, with a growing list of topics to be prohibited—ranging from critical race theory to the theory that race is a social construct.”
“Two such bills would essentially prohibit teachers from expressing ideas or facts of history that might cause discomfort,” researchers wrote, referring to Connecticut’s Senate Bill 280 and New Jersey’s Senate Bill 598. “Meanwhile, Texas’ H.B. 1804 would require public school teachers to always ‘present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage’ and, when discussing American society, to stress ‘the positive contributions of all individuals and groups to the American way of life’—a ‘compulsory patriotism’ bill of a type we have previously described as censorious.”
“In each case, it is hard to see how an accurate account of American slavery, Jim Crow, or Japanese internment would survive such restrictions,” they noted. “And should these bills become law, many teachers may simply avoid any content that could even approach the restrictions laid out in this legislation.”
The researchers pointed out that South Carolina’s House Bill 3779, which would forbid public school history teachers from providing instruction “about persons who owned slaves” and is one of just two educational gag orders introduced by a Democrat so far this year, “is not meant to ever become law.”
South Carolina Rep. Jermaine Johnson (D-70), the lead sponsor of the bill, has explained that he proposed a ban on teaching about slaveowners to protest his Republican colleagues’ support for educational censorship, saying sarcastically that “we should protect our children from being exposed to this evil by sweeping it under the rug and never addressing it.”
Expanding censorship of sexuality and gender
Since Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1557, which critics refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” Act, into law last year, there has been “a wave of copycat bills in statehouses across the country, and in many instances with even more censorious rules,” the PEN America experts wrote.
H.B. 1557 prohibits public schools from offering any “classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through grade three, or thereafter in a manner that is not age- and developmentally appropriate. Since the start of the 2021 session, 39 “Don’t Say Gay”-style bills have been proposed in 20 states, including 27 bills in 14 states during the current legislative session alone.
The vast majority of these bills follow the template of H.B. 1557, but many are more restrictive. Whereas Florida’s law permits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from grade four onwards if “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards,” 10 subsequent bills would extend the prohibition to grades five or six, and seven to grade eight. Eleven bills—including eight currently under consideration—would ban instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity altogether, from kindergarten right through to grade twelve. And four current bills apply to private schools or colleges.
The scope of materials and ideas these new bills would ban is also greater, raising the possibility that teachers could find themselves muzzled on a confusing and ever-growing array of topics.
Such attempts to purge curricula of references to gender and sexuality are only the beginning. Another subset of bills aims to prevent public schools and libraries from carrying books that contain information about gender and sexuality—just part of the nationwide surge in book bans, about which PEN America has written.
Other legislation seeks to chill teaching about these topics by threatening to slap educators and librarians with criminal charges.
Such legislation, researchers warned, “poses a grave threat to the circulation of information and ideas in public schools and libraries, as well as to the very individuals engaged in this educational work.”
Legislation targeting higher education institutions
PEN America called “the expansion of restrictions on higher education” one of “the most notable educational censorship trends over the past two years.”
“Restrictions of this type are particularly concerning because of the principle of academic freedom that applies to teachers in colleges and universities,” researchers wrote. “In 2022, 39% of all proposed educational gag orders restricted higher education, up from 30% in 2021. In 2023, higher education continues to be a target, with 20 bills of this nature already introduced in 13 states. This represents 20% of bills introduced this year, but 34% of bills outside of the newly prevalent ‘Don’t Say Gay’ clones—a percentage roughly consistent with previous years.”
In addition to legislation proposing “prohibitions on what faculty can teach,” PEN America noted that there are “bills that target academic freedom, by either weakening tenure protections or attacking universities’ institutional autonomy.”
Particularly extreme proposals motivated by the growing Influence of conspiracy theories
“Finally, many of the educational gag orders and other censorious proposals introduced in 2023 reflect the growing influence of extreme ideologies and conspiracy theories among the legislators behind them,” PEN America observed.
According to the analysis:
North Dakota’s H.B. 1522 would bar public and private schools from adopting “a policy establishing or providing a place, facility, school program, or accommodation that caters to a student’s perception of being any animal species other than human.” This is a reference to the urban myth, popular along the political fringe and embraced by Rep. Lauren Boebert [R-Colo.], that schools are providing litter boxes for students who believe that they are cats.
Two Oklahoma bills are worth singling out for special attention. Under both S.B. 937 and S.B. 935, “secular humanism” would be defined as a type of religion, with critical race theory, drag queen story hours, sexual orientation, and gender identity identified as “inseparably linked” to secular humanism. According to the bills’ author, should any public or private school in Oklahoma “promote the plausibility” of these concepts, it would therefore “excessively entangle the government with the religion of secular humanism,” and violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“It is too early to tell whether any of these bills will garner enough legislative support to become law, but their mere introduction tells us that the ‘Ed Scare‘ remains in full swing,” researchers noted. “Advocates of free expression and education should respond accordingly.”
In its summary of educational gag orders introduced in 2022, PEN America warned that “there is a legislative war on education in America.”
And in its examination of similar proposals unveiled in 2021, the organization stressed that “these bills will have—and are already having—tangible consequences for both American education and democracy, both distorting the lens through which the next generation will study American history and society and undermining the hallmarks of liberal education.”
Earlier this month, National Education Association president Becky Pringle argued that DeSantis’ attack on a new high school Advanced Placement African-American studies course is part of the far-right’s broader anti-democratic assault on public education and other institutions aimed at improving the common good.
“For DeSantis, blocking AP African-American studies is part of a cheap, cynical, and dangerous political ploy to drive division and chaos into public education debates,” Pringle wrote.
“He seeks to distract communities from his real agenda, which is to first whitewash and then dumb down public education as an excuse to privatize it,” she added. “His ultimate goal? The destruction of public education, the very foundation of our democracy.”