by Jeremy C. Young
Educational gag orders are coming to college. In some states, they’ve already arrived. What
are educational gag orders? They are laws, policies, and proposed bills,
proliferating over the past two years, that restrict teaching and training in
higher education as well as primary and high schools. The majority of this
legislation aims to censor discussions of race, racism, gender, and American
history, banning a series of what have been deemed divisive concepts for
teachers and trainers in educational settings. Today, 122 million people – nearly
one-third of the United States population – live in one of the 19 states where
these laws and policies are in force.
At PEN America, the 100-year-old free speech and human rights nonprofit
where I work, I help lead the fight against educational censorship. There’s never been a moment
quite like this, with so many different proposals circulating to censor
teachers and professors – part of an effort to censor specific ideas,
particularly those related to race, sex, and gender. This comes amid an
unprecedented scale of book bans in school libraries: more than 2,500 in the
past school year alone.
So-called curriculum transparency
propose to subject teachers’ curricula and assignments to microscopic scrutiny;
other bills would restrict LGBTQ-affirming
practices or even ban teachers from mentioning homosexuality in the classroom.
At the college level, there are renewed legislative
on tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance.
whole, these acts have been referred to as the Ed Scare: a broad effort to create a
moral panic concerning schools and higher education that echoes the Red Scares of
the past. Today’s moral panic is evolving and more diffuse, spreading to
curricula, school libraries, teacher training, and, in an increasing number of
places, to colleges and universities. The chilling effect of censorship on those
who work with students is dire; unquestionably, educational gag orders restrict
academic and educational discussions and impose strict, politically mandated
government dictates on teaching and learning.
total, PEN America has tracked nearly 200 proposed educational
gag orders in the legislatures of 41 states over the past two years, with the
vast majority appearing in 2022: a 250% increase over the year before.
Virtually all gag orders affect K-12 classrooms and thus have begun to shape
the experiences of students who will be entering residence halls for the first
time. But some impact colleges and universities more directly. Gag orders
restricting higher education became law in 2021 in Idaho, Iowa, and Oklahoma. In 2022, four new states have
passed higher ed gag orders: Florida, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Tennessee.
In all, 42 million Americans now live in states with higher ed-focused gag
orders in force.
In higher education, gag orders could ban ideas or curricular materials in a variety of subject areas: most obviously U.S. history and literature, but also law, political science, sociology, biology, and even business and the health sciences.
momentum for educational gag orders grew from a backlash against the protests
in 2020 responding to the murder of George Floyd and the popularity of the
Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project at
The New York Times. These developments, and
their promise of a national reckoning with the role of race and racism in
America’s past, generated fierce opposition from those opposed to these
cultural changes. In response, some legislators and conservative activists
borrowed the term critical race theory from an academic framework and applied
it inaccurately to a range of ideas related to diversity, equity, and inclusion
Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13950, “Combating Race and Sex
Stereotyping,” in September 2020 it banned federal agencies and federal
contractors from conducting diversity, equity, and inclusion training that
promoted particular “divisive concepts” dealing with race and sex in America.
Many of these banned ideas, such as the argument that “the United States is
fundamentally a racist country” or that “an individual should be discriminated
against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her
race or sex,” are so broad that they potentially encompass concepts widely
taught and even necessary, such as the history of American slavery or the
existence of affirmative action policies.
Joe Biden rescinded Executive Order 13950 on his first day in office. Newly
unable to carry out gag order policies at the federal level, advocates turned
to state legislatures, and the avalanche of state-level educational gag orders
began – but they were now focused squarely on educational institutions.
gag orders are vaguely written; indeed, the vagueness is often the point. They
maximize the chilling effect on speech by rendering the lines around acceptable
educational discourse especially opaque. As such, what these orders actually
ban often depends on who’s interpreting and enforcing them. In a worst-case
scenario, they could restrict large portions of the educational enterprise.
higher education, gag orders could ban ideas or curricular materials in a
variety of subject areas: most obviously U.S. history and literature, but also
law, political science, sociology, biology, and even business and the health
sciences. Whole curricula in gender and ethnic studies programs could be
impact of these orders may not be restricted to the formal classroom either. Outside
of the classroom, a provision in some gag orders banning “division or
classification of students by race” could restrict institutional recognition or
funding of student groups such as Black Student Unions. Some diversity training
programs could be banned, along with courses that require student attendance at
lectures where “divisive concepts” are mentioned. Because gag orders represent
political interference in matters traditionally controlled by institutional
governing boards, there may even be risks to college and
university accreditation – a concern raised by the American Association of
Colleges and Universities, representing more than 1,000 institutions of higher
gag orders that focus only on K-12 institutions impact higher education. Such
laws could restrict content that can appear in programs that offer early
college credit, such as concurrent enrollment and Advanced Placement courses.
They could also restrict teacher training materials in college education
departments, including at private colleges, something that has occurred in at least one state. Finally, by limiting the ideas
and perspectives that students encounter in K-12 classrooms, they leave
students less prepared for college courses or for interacting with students
from backgrounds different from their own.
the potentially wide-ranging effects of these orders, how can housing and
residence life professionals help students navigate the shifting landscape of
educational gag orders?
First, campus leaders
should not do the censors’ work for them. Because of the typical vagueness of gag
orders, we’ve seen many cases of administrative censorship (school or
overinterpreting gag orders to ban any mention of race, gender, or sexual
identity) and self-censorship (staff and faculty avoiding these topics out of
fear of controversy). Staff should, of course, follow the guidance given by the
institution. But, generally speaking, not one gag order law specifically mentions
housing and residence life, so these laws should have as little effect on your
work and your students as possible. Ideally, they should not restrict what
students can post on their room doors, what flyers they can hang on bulletin
boards, or what events they can host in residential spaces. If the law or
institution isn’t explicitly telling you to create new restrictions in these
areas, don’t create them.
Campuses should help
their students understand these laws and their impact. Because of the controversial nature of
gag order laws, higher ed staff are often afraid to explain them publicly,
which simply compounds the chilling effect of the laws. If students ask, don’t
be afraid to help them understand the laws’ context and impact on campus life.
You don’t need to take a position on whether the laws are advisable – students
themselves have differing views on this point – but providing facts and context
can help demystify things for everyone.
should also offer support for diversity, diverse students, and diverse
viewpoints. In a study of K-12 gag orders, researchers
Mica Pollock and John Rogers found that the degree to which these orders had a
negative impact on teachers and students was directly correlated with whether
staff and school officials made explicit their support for diversity
initiatives. When appropriate, continue to voice your institution’s commitment
to diversity and inclusion as reflected in its mission statement. Make sure to
offer support to underprivileged students or those with marginalized identities
who may be deeply upset by the effects of gag order laws. At the same time,
continue to be supportive, welcoming, and fair to students who hold views all
across the political spectrum, including views about gag orders.
it is important for staff to speak
out, but not to the point of endangering their position. People in the community
need to hear from higher education professionals about how educational gag
orders affect their work and their students. But higher education
professionals, particularly those in non-faculty roles, aren’t always free to
speak publicly about matters relating to their institution. Despite these
restrictions, there’s still plenty you
can do to help.
Talk to your family and friends about your experiences. Work with your staff
senate to advocate on gag orders within your institution. And, of course,
continue to support students as they navigate these treacherous waters.
issue is not something to be tackled alone. Censorious legislation can be
isolating; indeed, that’s often the point. No matter where your institution is
located or how it is organized, you’re not alone in dealing with educational
gag orders. Connect with supportive colleagues and administrators at your
institution or online. Or feel free to contact groups like PEN America; we’re
happy to offer you advice and support.
Jeremy C. Young is the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America. Young also spoke as part of the 2022 ACUHO-I Multicultural Institute.