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Dive Brief:

  • State-level bills that seek to restrict topics colleges can teach, like race-related subjects, are on the rise this year compared to 2021, according to a new report from PEN America. 
  • The free speech nonprofit tracked 137 state bills this year and found nearly 40% of them target colleges and universities. This represents an uptick from last year, when state lawmakers introduced 54 bills, and 30% of them were aimed at higher education. Most of the measures this year and last also tried to limit instruction in K-12 classrooms.
  • These bills almost entirely stem from Republicans, PEN America found. Only one piece of legislation in 2022 had a Democratic sponsor, and it failed to pass. 

Dive Insight:

Conservative policymakers across the U.S. have started limiting what can be addressed in the classroom or presented in libraries, mostly going after curricula centered on race, diversity and inclusion and history behind those topics. They’ve also railed against education on gender, sexuality and LGBTQ issues.

This movement can be traced back to former President Donald Trump, who issued an executive order in September 2020 that forbade federal contractors and grant recipients from training on “divisive concepts.” Colleges interpreted this executive action to apply to them, and several halted diversity initiatives. 

While a federal judge halted enforcement of the order and President Joe Biden subsequently revoked it, its effects linger. State Republicans have since taken up the mantle and introduced dozens of bills aimed at curtailing K-12 and college instruction, as well as training in government agencies, to a lesser extent.

Only a handful of these laws have passed, the new PEN America research shows. It identified seven bills signed into law in 2022, four of which affect public colleges. 

One of the most prominent examples is in Florida, where public institutions cannot require individuals to learn about certain concepts related to race, sex, color and national origin. Colleges that violate the statute could have their state funding pulled. 

These proposals generally focus on public education, however, that has shifted slightly. Only one bill targeted private educational enterprises in 2021, but nearly 10% did this year. 

PEN America drew attention to “the sheer volume of bills introduced.” In January alone, Missouri lawmakers introduced 18 educational gag order bills. That same month, Indiana introduced eight and Arizona filed six, including an amendment to the state constitution. 

By the time many legislative sessions began to wind down in June, “virtually every state where Republicans control at least one legislative chamber had considered an educational gag order in 2022,” PEN America’s report said.

The organization also noted the bills have tended to be more punitive than those from 2021. More than half of this year’s proposals included some sort of explicit punishment, versus only 44% of those last year. 

“Lawmakers are undermining the role of our public schools as a unifying force above politics and turning them instead into a culture war battleground,” Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said in a statement. “By seeking to silence critical perspectives and stifle debate, they are depriving students of the tools they need to navigate a diverse and complex world.”

PEN America, along with the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has spoken out against such interference from lawmakers before. 

Two months ago, the groups released a statement calling for lawmakers to stop interfering with educational matters and saying gag order legislation violates free speech and academic freedom principles.

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