The Ed Scare is a nationwide effort, documented by PEN America, to foment anger and anxiety about public education; to restrict or prohibit instruction about race, sexuality, and gender; and to ban books that address these topics. Taken as a whole, it is a multi-faceted campaign to chill the freedom to read, learn, and think in public education through legislation and intimidation.
What is the Ed Scare? And More Frequently Asked Questions
PEN America defines school book bans as instances where students’ access to books in school libraries and classrooms in the United States is restricted or diminished for either limited or indefinite periods of time.
Educational gag orders are legislative restrictions on the freedom to learn and teach – explicit prohibitions on educational speech. These include restrictions on “divisive concepts” related to race and so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills, which prohibit instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation.
Educational intimidation bills do not constitute direct forms of censorship or curricular prohibitions. But they facilitate the conditions for a chilled climate in public education, by radically expanding avenues for parents, government officials, and citizens to intervene curricular and extracurricular decisions in public K-12 schools.
They often include language about “parental rights” or “curriculum transparency.” Some bills in this category require the forced outing of LGBTQ+ students, and others facilitate book banning.
Parents ought to be encouraged to engage with schools through regular channels of dialogue, including parent-teacher conferences, PTA meetings, discussions with school leadership, and speaking at school board meetings. Most school districts have a way for parents to raise objections about the appropriateness of instructional and library materials, and to have those concerns addressed through considered review processes by public schools and districts. But no parent ought to have the right to dictate or control what it is all children have the opportunity to read in schools.
Students have the right to access the books of their choice available to them within an educational setting. School libraries are places of voluntary inquiry, and efforts to restrict what information and ideas are available therein often entail efforts to suppress or censor particular viewpoints, stories, and histories.
Students also have robust free speech protections, on and off school grounds. These rights include the right to protest. Finally, students have a moral right to learn about themselves, their fellow students, their society, and their history from a variety of perspectives.
Recent book bans focus primarily on books about people of color and/or LGBTQ+ people, but bans also target art books and books about topics such as illness, domestic violence, sexual experiences (including sex ed), and divorce. Educational gag orders frequently restrict speech related to race and racism, but following HB 1557 in Florida, a rash of states have also passed restrictions on speech related to gender and sexual orientation.
A recent group of educational intimidation bills have created conditions for students to self-censor by forcing teachers to monitor their behavior and dress for perceived changes to sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Teachers and librarians describe a climate of fear stoked by new laws (August 2023)
- Educational Intimidation: How Parents’ Rights Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn (August 2023)
- Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools (April 2023)
- Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights (April 2022)
- Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools (September 2022)
- America’s Censored Classrooms (August 2022)