Report: Gag orders impacting education jump 250% this year

Though K-12s in conservative states bear brunt of attacks on free speech, colleges have been deeply impacted.

Proposed gag orders impacting educators and students – both higher ed and K-12 – grew by 250% last year, as Republican political leaders targeted race, gender, sexuality and religion and helped get bills passed in four states that tamped down free speech at colleges and universities.

A new report from the advocacy group PEN America titled America’s Censored Classrooms shows that the amount of legislation introduced more than doubled from 2021 to 2022, with many directly targeting vulnerable K-12s, which are effectively powerless to fight back because of threats to state funding. Public universities aren’t immune either, as those in red states such as Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and South Dakota all saw bills that limited a campus or faculty’s ability to operate freely. Worse, they also could face losing accreditations or federal aid if they don’t comply.

“The gag order bills introduced in 2022 have tended to be more expansive and to target a wider array of educational speech than those filed last year,” authors noted in the report. “Instruction related to race has been the most common category of speech to draw lawmakers’ attention. But this year has also seen a sharp increase in the number of bills targeting LGBTQ+ issues and identities. Another notable development to date in 2022 has been the growing number of bills targeting higher education.”

In fact, though K-12s have gotten much of the national attention surrounding gag orders, 39% of the pool of bills have been aimed at institutions of higher education. PEN America also noted a trend, though tougher to pull off, of Congressional leaders trying to affect speech at private institutions (9% this year compared with 0% in 2021). The percentage of overall bills that did pass actually was higher than K-12s (57%).

“Moreover, those punishments have tended to be more extreme, including private rights of action, large monetary fines, faculty termination, and loss of institutional accreditation,” PEN researchers said. “Some unsuccessful bills have even proposed criminal penalties.”

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These are just a few examples of the bills that have gone through that now impact institutions:

  • Florida’s Stop WOKE Act (HB 7) pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis is one example of legislation passed where colleges and universities that are found to have introduced “divisive concepts” on their campuses might lose state funding.
  • A similar bill in Mississippi (SB 2113) that addresses divisive concepts goes further by stating colleges and universities that receive state funding cannot classify their students by race.
  • In South Dakota under HB 1012, which solely address higher education, public institutions cannot offer “trainings or orientation” or teach so-called divisive concepts regarding anything in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, i.e. race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Notably, only one proposed piece of legislation was offered up by a Democrat. The rest were all from Republicans. Though colleges are mentioned in nearly 40% of the bills, almost all of them address K-12s.

“Educators are under attack from legislators bent on depriving our children of an education that is open to a breadth of perspectives,” said Jeremy Young, senior manager of Pen America’s Free Expression and Education program. “Vibrant learning opportunities are essential for democratic citizenship to flourish. But this report confirms a grim reality: some elected leaders are marching schools backward, and trampling on students’ free expression in the process.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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