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PEN America Report Exposes Dangers of Educational Gag Orders

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

A disturbing number of legislative efforts to limit teaching and studying racism, sexism, and American history represent systematic attempts to impose restrictions on academic freedom and freedom of inquiry in American schools and universities, a report by PEN America's free expression group claims. The report aims to sound the alarm on the bills that would "amount to a sweeping crusade for content- and viewpoint-based state censorship."

In the report, Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn, and Teach, the authors illustrate how lawmakers in 24 states have tried to hamper how subjects such as racism, sexism, and American history are being taught in the United States. PEN America labels these bills as "educational gag orders" to capture their actual and intended outcome, which impedes educators from introducing specific subjects, ideas, or arguments from which they dissent. These bills would also inflict various disciplinary measures on educators, schools, and districts that cover forbidden topics, including, but not limited to, budget cuts and disciplinary reprisals. The report makes clear how educational gag orders have already had a chilling I effect on classrooms, even if they have not yet become law. One of the reasons is because the language used in the bills is deliberately vague, which enables the legislation to be applied "broadly and arbitrarily, threatening to effectively ban a wide swath of literature, curriculum, historical materials." In fear of budget cuts, dismissals, and lawsuits, educators and administrators have canceled events and courses and discarded books from libraries. It is all a kind of predictable self-censorship. For instance, a college in Oklahoma suspended a sociology course on race and ethnicity in May 2021. In Texas, a school administrator instructed teachers to balance books on the Holocaust with those of "opposing views."

Since last year, critical race theory (CRT) has become a social and political football. The debate has led to protests, tumultuous school board meetings, school board recall efforts, and uncertainty among educators. As the Pen America report reveals, the bills have already had effects on freedom of speech in classrooms across the country, restricted academic freedom, and resulted in the perverse complications of classroom discussions and curriculum development to avoid the punitive measures.

The report further shows that many proponents of these bills misuse the term “critical race theory” to draw on a wide spectrum of ideas and perspectives they dissent from. Some conservative activists and political leaders have employed the term to rally political support to systematically attack specific educational projects, such as The New York Times' 1619 Project, designed by XXX.

Critical race theory (CRT) was introduced as a field of legal study in the 1970s. The theory contends that there is nothing inherent about race; instead, CRT encourages people to examine how race has operated and shaped history, recognizing the extent of structural racism through which racial inequality is produced and repropagated within economic, political, and educational systems. Proponents of the theory believe that CRT is an essential framework for understanding how systemic racism can perpetuate discrimination and disadvantage. Learning about it could assist students in confronting aspects of internalized racism that many of us have been ignoring. For opponents, it is a provocative theory promoting division in our country with an ulterior motive to indoctrinate the American youth to reject their country and its triumphs.

The report shows that in the first nine months of 2021, 24 state legislatures proposed 54 bills intending to limit teaching and training of certain topics in K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and government agencies. Eleven of the bills have become laws in nine states. Eighteen of these bills were pending in the current legislative session, and six have been pre-filed for 2022.

From its investigation, PEN America reaches four overarching conclusions:

  • These bills represent an attempt to impose content- and viewpoint-based suppression.

  • These bills have already had and will continue to have a chilling effect on educators' and trainers' academic freedom and freedom of inquiry.

  • These bills are misrepresenting how intellectual frameworks are taught and threaten to stifle educators' ability to teach a wide range of topics.

  • These bills are misleadingly framed as protecting academic freedom, academic inquiry, and freedom of speech when their purpose and outcome do the contrary.

You can read the full report from PEN America here, which offers a history of the bills, their adverse repercussions on freedom of speech and intellectual freedom, and the colossal impact such legislation has on education as a whole.

Endangered Scholars Worldwide stands with PEN America to reaffirm that enacting these bills manifests a disregard for academic freedom and free inquiry, and we are in solidarity with those fighting against these restrictions. We believe that the uncertainty caused by such bills, together with the use of vague and ambiguous language, has a chilling effect on society as a whole. We believe that limiting discussions of race, gender, and other "divisive" issues are likely to impact students and educators of color disproportionately while being misleadingly framed as protecting free speech and academic inquiry. We believe that teaching and understanding issues around race, racism, and racial injustice are necessary if we are ever to achieve a just society.



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