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A PEN America report documents increased censorship in classrooms

A person poses with books.
Rick Bowmer
FILE - Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents on Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

A new report from the advocacy group PEN America paints a picture of increased censorship across American classrooms.

"America's Censored Classrooms 2023" catalogues more than 110 bills introduced during the 2023 state legislative sessions that restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history and LGBTQ identities in educational settings.

PEN America refers to these bills as "educational gag orders".

In addition to tracking legislation, the report identified trends in the types of bills being introduced and passed.

Increasingly, backers of these laws in K-12 schools have "shifted their emphasis to bills that restrict speech about LGBTQ+ topics and identities."

In higher education, rather than targeting what exactly can be taught and discussed in classrooms, legislation is aimed at "the support network that underpins academic freedom and free speech." That includes university governance structures, faculty tenure, DEI offices and initiatives, and accreditation agencies.

PEN America also analyzed the impacts of such educational gag orders from the last three years through faculty and teacher surveys. Their responses show an increased desire to find employment elsewhere.

The group first began tracking educational gag orders in 2021. Since then, 36 have become law across 21 states, including ten in 2023 alone.

Florida serves as blueprint for K-12 restrictions on LGBTQ topics

The PEN America report pointed to a shift away from proposing restrictions on speech about race and racism and more towards restrictions on speech about sexual orientation and gender identity.

"This new breed of legislation is designed to kick the legs out from underneath university governance and autonomy, so that the next time the state moves to censor faculty, no one is in position to push back."
Report from PEN America

Although race-focused legislation were still half of the bills proposed in 2023, few of them passed, the report found. And only one bill – Missouri’s SB 42 – explicitly targeted the 1619 Project – a long-form journalism project that argues slavery is a foundational American institution – compared to 15 bills in 2022.

"A majority of Americans, including large majorities of Republicans, support the honest teaching of history about race and slavery, even if it makes students uncomfortable, even at the K-12 level, and certainly, at the higher education level," said Jeremy C. Young, a lead author of the report.

Of the 110 educational gag order bills introduced this year, 39 bills would restrict how educators teach and discuss sexual orientation and gender identity. A majority of those bills – three out of four – are modeled on Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act, known to opponents as "Don't Say Gay".

"There has been a focus this year – and really last year as well – on creating an anti-trans panic," said Young, "There is a sense that there may be more of a route to political success with this legislation than we've seen with the anti-CRT [critical race theory] bills."

Restrictions at the university level target foundations of free speech

PEN America states that attempts to censor faculty directly faced stiff opposition from the courts and academic groups that uphold academic freedom in public colleges and universities. Instead, legislators began targeting aspects of this support system, including faculty unions, governing boards, higher education accreditors and other structures in order to "erode" academic freedom.

"This new breed of legislation is designed to kick the legs out from underneath university governance and autonomy, so that the next time the state moves to censor faculty, no one is in position to push back," reads the report.

Florida has also served as a blueprint here, according to Young, with SB 266, which the report called "2023's most censorious gag order."

The bill prohibits core courses from teaching ideas related to identity politics and systemic racism. It also prevents schools from spending state or federal money “to promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities” that advocate for “diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism."

It's been difficult to restrict speech in higher education the same way as in K-12 schools, so these bills are aimed at dismantling frameworks such as programs and curricula, said Young.

"You can't, for instance, regulate the pronoun that a student might use for themselves when they're an adult," said Young. "And so what we see instead is this restriction on how universities are governed and giving politicians and government officials more direct control."

Resistance ramps up ahead of 2024 legislative sessions

As more bills aim to censor free speech, efforts to resist are also ramping up. The report states that there are at least 14 different lawsuits pending against these censorship bills, half of which are in Florida.

Parts of the Stop WOKE Act have been stayed by federal courts with allegations that it infringes on first amendment rights. Several suits have also been filed against SB 266.

However, as these cases make their way through the courts, many teachers and faculty say they're working in fear.

"These laws work primarily through their chilling effect. Because of that uncertainty and that vagueness, it leads both administrators and teachers to censor themselves, censor their schools simply out of an avoidance of risk," said Young.

These new laws are driving some educators to leave their schools and seek employment in other states. Young said Florida is "suffering a great deal" under these bills, causing hesitancy for other states to follow suit.

"Ultimately, what we are seeing in Florida is an evident desire by the governor to turn Florida into a sort of demonstration garden for authoritarian restrictions on public education," said Young. "Of course, demonstration gardens are not effective if what they're demonstrating is deeply unpopular."

Read the full PEN America Report here.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Nancy Guan
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