Some alarming news, though it’s not surprising if you’ve been paying attention to local education news and the critical race theory debate: a new report from PEN America catalogues a concerning wave of legislative efforts to limit teaching and learning on topics including racism, sexism, and American history. These “educational gag orders,” say PEN America, are serious attempts to impose restrictions on freedom of speech and thought in American schools.
PEN’s report found, between January and September 2021, 54 separate bills across 24 state legislatures that would restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools, higher education, and state agencies and institutions. Eleven bills prevent use of materials from The New York Times’s 1619 Project, a journalistic and historical examination of the modern impact of slavery in the U.S.; nine bills explicitly target critical race theory, a term that has been used as a catch-all for any teaching on race or diversity; ten bills prohibit schools, teachers, or instructors from “compelling” someone to affirm a belief in a “divisive concept,” which, in identifying a set of beliefs officials must guard against, serves as a prohibition on certain viewpoints; one bill introduced in Tennessee seeks to ban curricular materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles”; eight bills require “balanced” teaching of “controversial” political or social topics, coded language that invites partisan politics into public educational institutions.
As the PEN report points out, the bills don’t just limit the expression of specific viewpoints, though that too is an issue; they prevent educators from sharing facts with their students, as there is no way to draw a clear line between facts teachers present and the conclusions students may draw from those facts. Bans on “divisive” concepts also limit the presentation of those concepts’ underlying facts. Though the bills are misleadingly framed as protecting free speech, says the PEN report, their purpose and effect is actually to limit speech.
11 of the 54 surveyed bills have become law, but these educational gag orders have had already an impact where they haven’t become law. Educators and administrators have canceled events and courses and removed books from libraries, fearing budget cuts, dismissals and lawsuits. “Anyone who cares about freedom of speech and democratic values should be appalled by these exclusionary bills,” said Jonathan Friedman, a co-author of the report and PEN America’s director of free expression and education. “Educational gag orders muzzle entire subject areas, scare teachers from engaging in important discussions, and deprive students of opportunities to ask questions, learn, and grow. These intrusive bans have no place in our classrooms and institutions.”
The report finds that these educational gag orders followed President Trump’s executive order in September 2020, repealed by President Biden, that aimed to ban training on “divisive concepts,” including “race or sex stereotyping” and “race or sex scapegoating.” They also followed the mass protests in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. The PEN report cites historian and writer Jelani Cobb: “The attacks on critical race theory are clearly an attempt to discredit the literature millions of people sought out last year to understand how George Floyd wound up dead on a street corner.” These tactics to limit free speech are also not new; readers will find familiar the bills’ characterizations of certain educational programs as “Marxist” and “un-American.” The framing of evil ideas corrupting children has been used as a tactic to stop LGBTQ teachers, trans students, trans people being able to use the preferred bathrooms, sex ed, teaching evolution, and more.
“We are appealing to all those who care about freedom of expression to see these bills for what they are: an unprecedented effort to render certain viewpoints and ideas illegal not just in schools, but in universities teaching adults,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “While it is perfectly acceptable to debate the content and messages conveyed in public education on sensitive issues of race and racism, these bills reflect an attempt to address concerns about one form of enforced orthodoxy through the imposition of another.”