Casual observers of the recent wave of educational gag orders could be forgiven for thinking that views on this issue are perfectly polarized along ideological lines. Conservatives support these bills, the conventional wisdom suggests; liberals oppose them.

In truth, however, a bipartisan majority of Americans agrees that educational gag orders are a bad idea. Large majorities of Americans in both parties support honest education about race and racism in the United States; 76% of Americans, including 74% of Republicans, believe in teaching the accurate history of race and slavery even when it makes students uncomfortable. Most Americans oppose banning books that teach “divisive concepts” from schools and support teaching high schoolers “that racism has been a part of America’s history” and “remains something many Americans face.”

It’s not just voters, either. As a nonpartisan organization with a history of defending free speech against critics on both the left and the right, PEN America has been heartened by the number of conservative intellectuals and politicians who have voiced opposition to educational gag orders and eloquent defenses of free expression in the classroom. Their arguments against the recent barrage of censorious legislation offer valuable warnings for those who seek to enact these short-sighted restrictions on classroom expression.

Below, we have compiled commentary from conservative and right-leaning thought leaders who have spoken against educational gag orders. We’ll update this list as additional conservative commentary is published.

Conservatives in Politics

Chris Sununu

Who: Republican governor of New Hampshire since 2017. Sununu threatened to veto New Hampshire’s educational gag order, but ultimately allowed it to become law when legislators attached it as an amendment to the state budget. (Watch Gov. Sununu starting at 44:45 here)

Where: Quoted in Michael Graham, Sununu: I Don’t Like Critical Race Theory, But I Won’t Ban It, Either, NH Journal, April 8, 2021

Key quote: “When you start turning down the path of government banning things, I think that’s a very slippery slope. What we consider a divisive comment on one side of the aisle today is going to open up the door to another divisive comment on the other side of the aisle tomorrow. And next thing you know, over the next few years, all we’re doing is banning what we can and cannot be talking about.”

Asa Hutchinson

Who: Republican governor of Arkansas since 2015. Lacking the legislative votes to sustain a veto, Hutchinson allowed Arkansas’s critical race theory bill to become law without his signature, but he spoke against it nevertheless.

Where: Arkansas Governor OKs Limits on Agencies’ Race, Sex Training, Associated Press, May 3, 2021

Key quote: “The bill does not address any problem that exists, and the paperwork and manpower requirements are unnecessary.”

David Wheeler

Who: Republican member of the South Dakota State Senate since 2021.

Where: Quoted in Stephen Groves, SD Senate Passes Ban on “Divisive” University Race Trainings, Associated Press, March 7, 2022

Key quote: “I cannot support the idea that state government should create a list of ideas, write them into statute, and call them divisive. It’s incredibly difficult to legislate effectively on broad concepts.” (Watch Sen. Wheeler here)

Conservatives in Think Tanks

Ryan Stowers

Who: Executive Director of the conservative Charles Koch Foundation.

Where: Charles Koch Foundation Continues to Raise Concerns Over “Divisive Concept” Policies, March 18, 2022

Key quote: “Americans are understandably concerned by the state of free speech on college campuses. But the surge in state legislatures considering bills to restrict academic freedom and what students and scholars can say in the classroom is the wrong approach and will make matters worse. Public officials should not ban what can be taught or researched at universities, no matter how much one disagrees with the ideas in question.”

Charlie Ruger

Who: Senior Vice President of Development at the Stand Together Foundation, founded by Charles Koch. When he made these comments, Ruger was Vice President of Philanthropy at the Charles Koch Foundation.

Where: State Legislators Who Think They’re Defending Free Speech Are Actually Hurting It, Real Clear Education, May 14, 2021; Laws Restricting What Professors Can Teach Hurt Everyone, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 2021

Key quote: “The legislation would sow confusion and threaten academic freedom far beyond those supposedly targeted. And the measures are short-sighted: They amount to heavy-handed overreach that will discourage the open educational environment they claim to champion. … They effectively argue that free speech and open inquiry are good only to the extent that those principles are applied in support of the ideas and questions lawmakers approve.”

Evan Feinberg

Who: Executive Director of the Stand Together Foundation, founded by Charles Koch.

Where: quoted in Thomas Beaumont, Conservative Koch Network Disavows Critical Race Theory Bans, Associated Press, September 30, 2021

Key quote: “Using government to ban ideas, even those we disagree with, is also counter to core American principles — the principles that help drive social progress.”

Rick Larsen

Who: President and CEO of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Where: Sutherland Institute Statement on Critical Race Theory, May 17, 2021

Key quote: “Maintaining the freedom to study, compare and criticize an idea that has flaws is to preserve and live out the miracle of the American marketplace of ideas. However, if we seek to simply ban an idea – or words or phrases – from mention in the education process, we are setting a precarious precedent regarding freedom of thought and speech. After all, if circumstances or majority or public opinion succeed at banning any idea – which ideas may be next?”

Conservatives in Universities

Robert P. George

Who: The McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. A co-founder of the American Principles Project, George is a trustee of the Heritage Foundation and a past chairman of the National Organization for Marriage.

Where: Twitter, March 8, 2021

Key quote: “What makes sense in academic institutions is not to ban crit[i]cal race theory. … There is no view, however radical, that someone is willing to articulate and defend in the proper currency of intellectual discourse–reasons, evidence, arguments–from which I feel any need to “shield” my students. Let them hear the arguments and counterarguments–and *think*.”

Keith E. Whittington

Who: The Wiilliam Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a former fellow at the Hoover Institution, Whittington chairs the academic committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance. He is a self-described “right-of-center libertarian.”

Where: Banning Critical Race Theory Would Be Bad for Conservatives, Too, Washington Post, June 30, 2021; The Trouble with Banning Critical Race Theory, Areo, June 16, 2021.

Key quote: “One can be highly sceptical of most work in critical race theory (as I am) and still think that this sort of legislative micromanagement is a bad idea. The growing panic over critical race theory is leading politicians down a dangerous path that will undermine the quality of American higher education and the truth-seeking mission of American universities. … Attempting to keep out ideas simply because we disagree with them is antithetical to the purpose of higher education.”

Jonathan Marks

Who: Professor of Politics and Chair of the Politics and International Relations Department at Ursinus College. Marks is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education (Princeton University Press, 2021).

Where: An Illiberal Attack on Public Higher Education, Commentary, April 16, 2022

Key quote: “The present campaign against critical race theory is objectionable for reasons many conservatives would have recognized until only yesterday. … We don’t protect our students by shutting out dangerous ideas. We know this when we attack left censoriousness but forget it when we find ourselves in power.”

William Lyons

Who: Director of Policy Partnerships for the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. Lyons served as Chief Policy Officer for three mayors of Knoxville, and as campaign manager for Republican mayoral candidate Bill Haslam in 2003.

Where: How to Seek Truth: Dealing with Divisive Concepts in the Marketplace of Ideas, Tennessean, March 2, 2022

Key quote: “While discouraging contemporary excesses might bring about short term comfort to many, it would limit the discomfort that pushes us to challenge our beliefs. … It’s critical to ensure that students are exposed to the marketplace of ideas from the widely accepted to the sometimes controversial and divisive. We must trust that the best ideas will prevail and that those with weak foundations will fall to the wayside or appeal only to a few. Placing controversial viewpoints before college students is not proclaiming their truth. It is part of the search for truth.”

Brittany Murphree

Who: Conservative law student at the University of Mississippi who voted for Donald Trump. After taking and enjoying a course in critical race theory, Murphree wrote a letter to the Mississippi House Education Committee opposing the state’s educational gag order.

Where: Letter to the Mississippi House Education Committee, excerpted in Molly Minta, Inside Mississippi’s Only Class on Critical Race Theory, February 2, 2022

Key quote: “The prohibition of courses and teachings such as [critical race theory] is taking away the opportunity for people from every background and race to come together and discuss very important topics which would otherwise go undiscussed. I believe [Mississippi’s educational gag order] not only undermines the values of the hospitality state but declares that Mississippians are structured in hate and rooted in a great deal of ignorance.”

Conservatives in Journalism

David French

Who: Senior Editor at The Dispatch, author, and former staff writer at National Review.

Where: Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee, The Atlantic, April 11, 2022; The GOP Becomes What It Once Despised, The Dispatch, May 25, 2021

Key quote: “Here’s the reality of the First Amendment: No viable constitutional doctrine declares “Free speech for me and not for thee.” … Prescribing textbooks and lesson plans (which public-school districts have always done) is different from imposing broad, vague bans on the undefined “instruction” of concepts and ideas. … Censorship is inconsistent with American pluralism. Speech codes and book bans undermine one of the core purposes of American education. We send our kids to school not just to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, but to learn how to be citizens in a liberal democracy, and a core value of that democracy is a commitment to free speech—for me and for thee.”

Andrew Sullivan

Who: Journalist and commentator, currently at The Weekly Dish, and author of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, and How to Get It Back.

Where: Don’t Ban CRT. Expose It, The Weekly Dish, June 18, 2021

Key quote: “Banning illiberal ideologies like CRT makes us indistinguishable from the woke. … Replacing CRT with crude, jingoistic versions of history or society is no answer either. … [The bills] contain wording to constrain the kind of teaching that is built on CRT that is far too vague, could constrain speech in countless unforeseen ways, and are pretty close to unenforceable. (When people are proposing body-cameras for teachers, you know they’ve gone off the edge.) Most of these bills, to make things worse, strike me as unconstitutional.”

Gary Abernathy

Who: Former Republican political operative and newspaper editor, most recently of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette. Abernathy supported Donald Trump during most of his presidency and was one of only six newspaper editors to endorse Trump in 2016.

Where: There’s a Lot for Conservatives to Embrace in Critical Race Theory. The Question is What We Should Do with It, Washington Post, December 13, 2021

Key quote: “Many conservatives pride themselves on being grounded in logic rather than emotion. Logic dictates that something as historically obvious as the impact of slave labor on the success of our nation should be acknowledged and more comprehensively taught, along with the fact that our legal, governmental and economic institutions were crafted, intentionally or otherwise, to favor White people. … Critical race theory should be welcomed in schools to the degree that it introduces the overlooked contributions of African Americans and the institutional racism that has existed since our nation’s founding — within a curriculum that stops short of sermonizing to today’s White Americans or force-feeding politically driven solutions.”

Conservative-Leaning Libertarians

Cathy Young

Who: Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a right-leaning libertarian think tank. Young identifies as “libertarian/conservative.”

Where: We Need an Honest Conversation about Teaching Social Justice in Public Schools, Daily Beast, January 24, 2022

Key quote: “There is no question the anti-CRT backlash has been crude, filled with hyperbole…and often conducted in bad faith. … There is little doubt that most of these bills…are either aggressively illiberal or dangerously vague. … And, quite often, anti-CRT activism sounds like a right-wing version of the “safe space” mentality conservatives have long ridiculed among the “snowflake” left. … It’s almost as if some conservatives are intent on living up to the “white fragility” stereotype of white people who feel threatened by any discussion of racism in America.”

Neal McCluskey

Who: Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Where: Government Indoctrination, Whether “Critical” Or “Patriotic,” Is Wrong, The Hill, May 11, 2021

Key quote: [Educational gag orders are] no less ‘indoctrination’ than what many accuse critical race theorists of when they push for public schools to teach what they think is right. Anyone who tries to make public schools teach or not teach something, is supporting government-forced indoctrination. … No matter where you stand on burning issues like critical race theory, you should oppose government indoctrination.”

Robby Soave

Who: Senior Editor at Reason.

Where: Critical Race Theory Can’t Be Banned. It Can Be Exposed, Mocked, and Avoided, Reason, June 29, 2021

Key quote: “These bills are almost uniformly heavy-handed, and in some cases represent active threats to freedom of expression in the classroom. … Remember when conservatives were outraged about the disinvitation campaigns waged against campus speakers like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos? Well, [Pennsylvania’s anti-CRT] bill would make disinvitation the law of the land. University bureaucrats would have to scroll through prospective speakers’ Twitter feeds, on the hunt for statements that could be read as racist or sexist.”

This update from PEN America was compiled by Jeremy C. Young and Jonathan Friedman.


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