Last month PEN America, the non-partisan non-profit that just celebrated 100 years of protecting free expression, published its latest roundup of educational “gag order” legislation across the U.S.
The organization is actively tracking a national wave of bills, many now becoming law, that make patriotism compulsory and restrict what can be said, read or taught about race and American history. “Every state in the country has education-related laws on the books designed to produce patriotic, civic-minded students,” the group wrote in its March 30 report. “But what legislators are doing now is different.”
“Instead of simply requiring students to learn about, say, the Mayflower Compact or the importance of democracy, lawmakers are attempting to censor what they consider to be ‘anti-American’ ideas, regulate instruction on slavery and racism, and prohibit conversations about contemporary injustice,” the organization wrote. “In other words, the purpose of these bills is not simply to cultivate patriotism. Rather, it is to make patriotism–or more specifically, a knee jerk and uncritical form of patriotism–compulsory.”
Unlike previous historical waves of such legislation, including those that required teachers to take loyalty oaths or students to recite the pledge of allegiance, PEN says current legislation has focused on race and LGBTQ issues.
Though the new wave of bills began at the K-12 level, an increasing number of bills now target public universities, as well.
And while none of these bills have yet become law in North Carolina, Republican politicians in the state have called for them.
Today, a by-the-numbers look at the state of this restrictive educational legislation.
(Source: PEN America Index of Educational Gag Orders, updated monthly.)
3 – Number of new educational gag orders passed last month — that number includes Florida’s HB 1557, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits any instruction touching on “sexual orientation or gender identity”
“It permits such instruction in grades 4 through 12,” PEN notes. “But only in an ‘age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate’ manner and “in accordance with state standards,” language that experts warn is alarmingly vague. The law also creates a private right of action, permitting parents to file civil lawsuits against school districts they believe have facilitated illicit instruction.
Mississippi’s SB 2113, also passed into law last month, is even more broadly worded and far-reaching. It prohibits both K-12 and public higher educational institutions from “directing or compelling students to adopt or affirm certain ideas related to sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin,” PEN notes.
“They are also forbidden from making any ‘distinction or classification’ of students on the basis of race,” PEN wrote in its March report. “A provision that the executive director of the Mississippi ACLU worries might affect the legality of Black student groups like the University of Mississippi Black Law Students Association.”
South Dakota’s HB 1012, also passed in March, forbids public colleges and universities from requiring students or employees “attend or participate in any training or orientation that teaches, advocates, acts upon, or promotes divisive concepts.”
PEN notes that schools don’t need to endorse the vaguely defined “divisive concepts” — simply teaching that they exist is enough to trigger a violation.
Among the other noteworthy numbers:
175 – Educational gag order proposals filed since January 2021
40 – States in which those bills have been filed
15 – Bills of this type that have become law
13 – States in which such bills have passed
103 – Bills of this type still active across the U.S.
97 – Active bills that target K-12 education
42 – Active bills that target higher education
57 – Active bills that include an avenue by which punishment can be imposed on those found to violate them
23 – Bills filed that explicitly prohibit the teaching of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project
15 – Bills that do not explicitly prohibit The 1619 Project but could implicitly ban the book