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Free Expression and Education

The Issue

Educational institutions play an essential role in sustaining democracy. They serve as crucibles of ideas, dialogue, and debate, committed to educating the rising generation as well as forwarding the pursuit of knowledge and truth. But amid rising polarization in the United States and around the world, educational institutions have become a site of conflict and challenge, particularly when it comes to the bedrock values of free speech and diversity, equity, and inclusion, and perceived tensions among them.

PEN America’s free expression and education program works to reconcile these tensions by working with schools, colleges, and universities to ensure robust protections for academic freedom and freedom of speech are balanced with advancements in diversity and inclusion, as well efforts to redress legacies of discrimination and inequity. Our team of experts engage in research, advocacy, trainings, public events, and youth programming, and we have developed specialized resources for college administrators, faculty, and students.

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Book Bans

Today, book bans in the U.S. are under profound attack. They are disappearing from library shelves, being challenged in droves, being decreed off-limits by school boards, legislators, and prison authorities. And everywhere, it is the books that have long fought for a place on the shelf that are being targeted. Books by authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors, by women. Books about racism, sexuality, gender, history. PEN America pushes back against the banning of books and the intolerance, exclusion, and censorship which undergirds it.

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Educational Censorship

PEN America is a national leader in fighting educational censorship in both higher ed and K-12. Our signature campaign against educational gag orders — legislative restrictions on the freedom to learn and teach that have swept the country since January 2021 — has generated media coverage in over a hundred publications. We will continue to expand our work to defend students and teachers against legislative infringements on free expression in the classroom.

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Campus Free Speech

Free speech has become a flashpoint for controversy on campuses across the U.S. We believe that for a campus to be open to all ideas, it must be genuinely open to all people, including those from less traditional backgrounds and those from previously excluded groups. In our trainings for university faculty and staff, and in our advocacy for free speech and academic freedom, we encourage campuses to robustly defend free speech and open inquiry at the same time that they advance principles of diversity and inclusion and address lingering legacies of discrimination.

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Next Gen PEN America

PEN America is committed to empowering a new generation of free expression advocates and building a youth advocacy network that can work together to facilitate positive change. We regularly invite students to support and engage in our national and international advocacy efforts, and actively seek ways to amplify and encourage students’ own free expression advocacy projects.

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Research and Reports

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools (September 2022)

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools (September 2022)

This report on school book bans offers the first comprehensive look at bans throughout the 2021–22 school year.
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America's Censored Classrooms

America's Censored Classrooms

This year, proposed educational gag orders have increased 250 percent compared to 2021. Thirty-six different states have introduced 137 gag order bills in 2022, compared to 22 states introducing 54 bills in 2021. While there has been a decline in new gag order laws passed from 12 last year to 7 this year, overall, legislative attacks on education in America have been escalating—fast.
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Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights (April 2022)

Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights (April 2022)

PEN America has collated an Index of School Book Bans, offering a snapshot of the trend of decisions to ban books in school libraries and classrooms in the United States from July 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022.
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Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn, and Teach

Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn, and Teach

Between January and September 2021, 24 legislatures across the United States introduced 54 separate bills intended to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools, higher education, and state agencies and institutions. The majority of these bills target discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history.
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Missing from the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature

Missing from the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature

A persistent pattern of attempts to remove certain books from public schools and libraries, combined with a lack of diversity in Children's and Young Adult (CYA) book publishing, narrows the range of stories and perspectives available to U.S. students.
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And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities

And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities

And Campus for All combines extensive reporting and thorough analysis of all sides of recent debates, as well as three case studies informed by exclusive interviews with protagonists in some of the most pitched campus battles in recent years.
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Wrong Answer: How Good Faith Attempts to Address Free Speech and Anti-Semitism on Campus Could Backfire

Wrong Answer: How Good Faith Attempts to Address Free Speech and Anti-Semitism on Campus Could Backfire

In "Wrong Answer: How Good Faith Attempts to Address Free Speech and Anti-Semitism on Campus Could Backfire," PEN America speaks out in response to a spate of legislation and legislative proposals at the state level that are aimed to buttress free speech protections.
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Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America

Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America

Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America details an array of infringements on speech, both official and informal.
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Advocacy

Students’ Right to Education

Students’ Right to Education

PEN America leads a joint statement with 155 organizations stating firm opposition to legislative efforts to restrict education about racism and American history.
Leander, TX Book Banning

Leander, TX Book Banning

PEN America and authors demand a Texas school district reinstate their books.
Academic Freedom at UNC Law

Academic Freedom at UNC Law

PEN America concerned as failure to reappoint UNC law professor to UNC Press Board comes as academic freedom questions mount.

Commentary

The Future of Free Speech

The Future of Free Speech

Suzanne Nossel shares her vision for the future of free speech on college campuses and in educational institutions.
Free Speech Needs Principled Defenders, Not Fairweather Friends

Free Speech Needs Principled Defenders, Not Fairweather Friends

Jonathan Friedman looks at struggles over free speech and censorship in the 20th century to argue for the need for nonpartisan approaches to the issues today.
When Diversity and Inclusion Clash with Free Speech—and Why they Don’t Have To

When Diversity and Inclusion Clash with Free Speech—and Why they Don’t Have To

Jonathan Friedman discusses three cases where the principles of diversity, inclusion, and free speech have come into conflict.
You can only protect campus speech if you acknowledge racism

You can only protect campus speech if you acknowledge racism

Suzanne Nossel talks about the role of confronting difficult legacies of racism and discrimination in efforts for campuses to promote free speech.
Zoombombing Is New, Online Harassment Isn’t

Zoombombing Is New, Online Harassment Isn’t

Jonathan Friedman assesses the phenomenon of “Zoombombing” in higher education and its implications for free speech and inclusion on campus.
Setting New Norms for the Dorms: Campus Free Speech and Residence Life in 2021

Setting New Norms for the Dorms: Campus Free Speech and Residence Life in 2021

Jonathan Friedman and Nicholas Perez offer pointers to residence life officers returning to campus post-COVID-19 based on a survey conducted with ACUHO-I.

Video Highlights: Free Speech Education: What Do Young People Need to Know?