The movement to stifle certain types of expression in K-12 schools is continuing to expand – and the laws go way beyond enabling book bans. 

While “Don’t Say Gay” bills and other educational gag orders continue to spread across states, a diverse set of provisions are gaining popularity this legislative cycle. From the return of McCarthyism to bogus book ratings, below are three types of legislative proposals that aim to censor free expression in K-12 schools.


“Don’t Display Gay”

While most know about “Don’t Say Gay” bills, which began in Florida in 2022, a new trend targeting K-12 free expression is “Don’t Display Gay” bills. Though they vary from state to state, these proposals aim to legislatively restrict the use of LGBTQ+ Pride flags, signs, displays, and safe space stickers in classrooms and school libraries. 

Oklahoma’s HB 3217, the “Patriotism Not Pride Act,” is one of the most stringent of this type. The bill would defund any public agencies that show support for or simply recognize Pride month “or any event with a similar theme.” The bill is broad, and would bar not just Pride events, but anything related to LGBTQ+ Pride, including official social media posts and educational programs. The bill also bars any LGBTQ+ identity flags from being displayed on any state property.

In a demonstration of the censorial intent behind the proposed law, one Oklahoma representative said he supported the bill because it would prevent state agencies from using “state resources to advocate lifestyles that Americans have regarded as an immoral influence and harmful to those who participate.”

Other bills are less explicitly anti-LGBTQ+, but their sponsors have similarly made their intentions clear. In Tennessee, HB 1605 would restrict the display of flags in public schools. The text doesn’t explicitly say “Pride” or “LGBTQ+,” but the primary sponsor of the bill said he authored the bill after parents in his district complained to him about Pride flags in some school classrooms. The main sponsor of SB 1722, the bill’s senate companion, said in a hearing that his support for the bill was similarly spurred by several parents from his district complaining about a teacher who had a Pride flag on their desk.

As we’ve seen with “Don’t Say Gay” bills, these “Don’t Display Gay” policies also originated at the local school district level before reaching state legislation. School districts in multiple states, such as Ohio, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, have all banned Pride or LGBTQ-related flags, signs, or displays; one district in Utah enacted a ban targeting both Pride and Black Lives Matter flags.

According to the Trevor Project, nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth cite proposed and enacted legislation censoring LGBTQ+ people in schools as a contributing factor to their poor mental health. Further, states where legislators target LGBTQ+ expression in schools have seen a sharp uptick in hate crimes against LGBTQ+ students, according to the Washington Post. As legislators find new ways to chill LGBTQ+ expression and undermine inclusivity in schools, the climate for LGBTQ+ students is bound to worsen.


Red Scare 2.0?

A second type of bill targeting K-12 schools is attempting to bring McCarthyism to the 21st Century.

In several states, bills specifically requiring the teaching of the “threat” and “unspeakable atrocities” of communism have been proposed this year. For example, a failed and lengthy educational gag order proposed in New Hampshire – HB 1153 – would have mandated anti-communism courses for middle and high schoolers. The bill outlines the curriculum for the courses in significant detail, including requiring schools teach that communism “is a cult prophesy that goes against nature” and that “the history of ‘McCarthyism’ as a ‘witch hunt’ was a communist-and-sympathizer driven disinformation operation aimed to discredit the senator … and to stymie the attempt to root out Communists in powerful positions.”

Such specific language is plainly ideological, going well beyond what is typical when it comes to the legislature setting guidelines for the teaching of history or political philosophy. Similar bills in Florida and Tennessee together add to a trend of legislators delineating what viewpoints must be taught in such a manner as to potentially restrict educators’ professional discretion, and impose an ideological constraint on the freedom to learn. 

Another bill in Oklahoma includes a provision banning “the display of flags or propaganda of any organization or symbol of socialism, communism, Marxism, or anti-American sentiment” within classrooms and at school-sponsored or sanctioned events. As with other educational gag orders, the terms are vague and will certainly chill any efforts to teach about any of these topics, without consideration of existing professional and pedagogical standards. 

This development comes as little surprise, as historically, and once again over the past three years, fear-mongering about communism or socialism has advanced in tandem with efforts to manufacture panic over LGBTQ+ people, critical race theory, and DEI programs.


READER Acts: Over-rating and overrated

In Texas, HB 900, dubbed the ‘READER Act,’ is currently enjoined on First Amendment grounds. First passed in 2023, the law requires vendors who sell books to public schools to apply ratings to them based on their sexual content, stipulating that books that are determined to be “sexually explicit” cannot be sold to schools at all, and those deemed to be “sexually relevant” can only be accessed by students with their parents’ permission. The ratings are based on vague and overbroad criteria – a recipe for inconsistent application and restricting students’ freedom to read. 

Despite the unconstitutionality of HB 900 and its clear infringement on students’ freedom to read, legislators in other states are now introducing copycat legislation. Georgia’s SB 294 and South Carolina’s H 4701 are two nearly identical examples. Like the original READER Act, these bills attempt to impose government-mandated ratings on books. 

The enforcement of ratings on books based on specific criteria is inherently subjective. The language in these READER Acts is vague and overly broad, making it difficult to standardize a rating system; how one person (or private company or public school) assesses a book could vary from another. Frequently, the pressure to conduct such reviews encourages people to scrutinize for particular words, scenes, or settings, rather than evaluate a work of literature as a whole. What’s more, these bills don’t take into account the fact that publishers already offer age and reading level recommendations for their books.

Further, these bills require schools to put many hours into assessing their entire library collections for books that fit a vague criteria of “sexually explicit.” According to an analysis by EveryLibrary, school districts can spend upwards of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours assessing books due to reviews – at a cost of millions of dollars to the state.

In under a year, Texas’s READER Act caused a firestorm in the state, resulting in hundreds of preemptive book bans and a lawsuit. Texas librarians have already expressed concerns about how their READER Act requires mass reviews of their entire library collections and the financial burden it will cause. Texas students, publishers, booksellers, authors, and advocates have also spoken out against the damaging law. The chaotic rollout of HB 900 in Texas should be a cautionary tale for legislators in Georgia, South Carolina, and beyond.