(NEW YORK) — State legislative proposals to restrict the freedom to learn and teach have increased by 250% in 2022 compared to last year, according to a report released today by PEN America, the free expression and literary organization. These educational gag orders are now law in 19 different states where 122 million Americans reside, underscoring the rapidly escalating threats to students’ First Amendment rights.

America’s Censored Classrooms analyzes 137 educational gag orders introduced in 36 states so far this year, comparing them to the 54 gag order bills filed in 22 states in 2021. While only a small number of these bills were enacted, the sheer volume and unrelenting pace of censorious proposals have cast a powerful chill over the teaching of U.S. history, race, LGBTQ+ identities, and other essential topics. Missouri legislators alone proposed an astounding 21 separate gag order bills this year.

Published as PEN America marks its 100th anniversary, the report builds on the organization’s foundational commitment to defend creative expression and human rights. It offers the most comprehensive data available on gag order bills emerging from statehouses across the country.

Among the report’s other major findings:

  • This year’s gag order bills have been strikingly more punitive than last year’s. They have been more likely to include punishments, and those punishments have frequently been harsher, proposing fines for institutions and even criminal charges for teachers.
  • Consistent with last year’s trends, this year’s educational gag order bills have been driven overwhelmingly by Republican legislators. One bill out of the 137 introduced this year had a Democratic legislative sponsor.
  • Most gag order bills have continued to suppress the teaching of race, but LGBTQ+ identities are an increasing focus of educational censorship. This year, 23 gag order bills have focused on speech related to LGBTQ+ identities, compared to just five last year.
  • Bills introduced this year have been more likely to target higher education than in 2021. This year, 39 percent of bills have targeted colleges and universities, compared with 30 percent last year. These restrictions could cause higher education institutions to lose their accreditation and students to lose access to federal financial aid.
  • Students and teachers report that gag order bills have stunted the intellectual exchanges that facilitate learning. In one case, Iowa high schoolers reported that there was “a different atmosphere at the school” after the state’s gag order became law; in another, a teacher felt unable to explain the motivations behind the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution without violating the law.

The findings draw disturbing conclusions about the state of American learning: educational gag orders incentivize teachers to sanitize their lesson plans for fear of violating censorious state laws. They rob young people of opportunities to learn from a wide range of views and life experiences. And they send a dangerous message that the perspectives of some individuals — especially people of color and members of LGBTQ+ communities —  don’t belong in the classroom.

“Our report documents in alarming detail the threats to how young people learn and are taught in American schools,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. “Lawmakers are undermining the role of our public schools as a unifying force above politics and turning them instead into a culture war battleground. By seeking to silence critical perspectives and stifle debate, they are depriving students of the tools they need to navigate a diverse and complex world.”

“Educators are under attack from legislators bent on depriving our children of an education that is open to a breadth of perspectives,” said Jeremy C. Young, Senior Manager of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and the lead author of the report. “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.”

This publication expands on PEN America’s initial November 2021 report on educational gag orders, as well as its April 2022 analysis tracking the proliferation of book bans. The book bans report documented more than 1,500 bans across 26 states during the nine-month period between July 2021 and March 2022. 

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.