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A new report from PEN America, “Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn, and Teach,” says that in the first nine months of 2021, 24 state legislatures introduced 54 bills that would restrict the teaching and training of subjects including race in K-12 schools, higher education or state agencies and institutions. Eleven of those bills are now law in nine states; three apply to colleges and universities. According to PEN America’s analysis,18 of these bills are now pending in the current legislative session, and six have been prefiled for 2022.

Qualitatively, PEN America found that the bills all represent an effort to impose content- and viewpoint-based censorship, have already had a chilling effect on instructors’ speech, and are based on a “misrepresentation of how intellectual frameworks are taught, and threaten to constrain educators’ ability to teach a wide range of subjects.” These bills are also “often misleadingly framed as protecting free speech and academic inquiry, when their purpose and effect is to do the opposite,” the report says. Affected or potentially affected classroom content includes a “wide range of literature, discourse, and curricular materials, blocking discussions of facts,” such as facts about civil rights leaders, slavery or women’s suffrage.

“There is a hierarchy of threats to free speech, and viewpoint-based dictates imposed by government are at the top of that pyramid, historically recognized as the most potent danger to open discourse,” Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said in a statement. “As a principle, free speech is meant to reside above politics. 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. 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.”