(NEW YORK)— PEN America sent a letter to the Oklahoma State Board of Education (SBE) calling on the board to immediately reverse its decision to punish two school districts for alleged violations of HB 1775, an educational gag order law signed last year that unconstitutionally restricts the teaching of race and gender. The board’s decision represents the first time that school districts in Oklahoma have been punished for violating HB 1775.

Following complaints that certain school activities had run afoul of the law, the board recently voted to downgrade the accreditation statuses of Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) and Mustang Public Schools (MPS) to “accredited with warning” – a more serious punishment than either the law or the Oklahoma Department of Education called for. The demotions could incentivize teachers to avoid any topics that are considered even remotely controversial.

The evidence in both cases underscores that neither school district actually violated the requirements of HB 1775. But the State Board of Education punished them anyway, based on deeply flawed arguments that could cast a profound chill over classroom instruction. In one case, the board based its decision on a statement by the State Department of Education that the audio recording of a training presentation differed from the text on the slides; in fact, the department has now acknowledged that the audio and written text were exactly the same. The letter concludes by calling on the board to reverse its accreditation decisions at its meeting this week.

“This case demonstrates the dangerous chilling effect gag orders can have,” said Jeremy C. Young, senior manager for free expression and education at PEN America and author of the letter to the board. “We are already seeing evidence that these expansive interpretations of HB 1775 have made teachers in other Oklahoma districts less likely to discuss complex and challenging ideas about race, bias, or other important concepts. These board decisions are serious miscarriages of justice. Unless reversed immediately, they will rob Oklahoma students of the quality education they deserve.”

The letter reads, in part:

As a free expression advocacy organization, PEN America opposed and continues to oppose HB 1775 as a dangerous legislative restriction on free speech and inquiry in our schools. However, we write today to question not a law that is outside of the Board’s control, but two accreditation decisions that are well within your purview.

Under any reasonable interpretation of HB 1775 and of the emergency rules issued by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) in response to the law, neither Tulsa Public Schools nor Mustang Public Schools merited any sanction, let alone the “accredited with warning” designation, harsher than what OSDE had requested, that the Board chose to impose on both schools.”

Read the full letter here.

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

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057