(NEW YORK) — Proposals to restrict the freedom to learn and teach continued to proliferate in state legislatures across the nation in 2023, according to a new PEN America report.

America’s Censored Classrooms 2023: Lawmakers Shift Strategies as Resistance Rises documents 110 new educational gag orders introduced in 2023, which primarily take aim at restricting speech about LGBTQ+ topics and identities in K-12 schools, and squelching the structures that underpin academic freedom at higher education institutions. These laws and policies are turning schools and campuses into ideological battlegrounds where basic rights are under assault and longstanding educational freedoms are being undermined.

“Censorship advocates have spent years trying to sabotage the teaching of ideas they don’t like, and imposing their own views on our nation’s students,” said PEN America’s Jeremy C. Young, a lead author of the report, “And this year, they got even better at legislating their bad ideas in states across the country. Now educators are being forced out of their profession, while students and parents must navigate political minefields.”

“But, there’s hope,” said Young, who heads the Freedom to Learn program. “Americans are rising up against these efforts like never before.”

PEN America first began tracking educational gag orders in 2021. Since then, 30 have become law across 21 states, including ten in 2023 alone. Four additional educational gag orders were imposed by executive order or state/system regulation this year, for a total of ten since 2021. This report analyzes the bills introduced and passed in the 2023 legislative sessions, as well as the impact of laws passed in 2021 and 2022.

The rise of – and continued momentum behind – educational gag orders is a key component of what PEN America calls the “Ed Scare,” a nationwide campaign to impose ideological control over the freedom to learn, read, and think in America’s educational institutions. Combined with book bans and educational intimidation bills that compel educators to self-censor, these efforts are upending academic freedom and free expression in classrooms, to the detriment of students, teachers, parents, and American democracy. The censorship is reminiscent of the 1950s McCarthy Red Scare era.

While educational gag orders introduced in prior years overwhelmingly sought to censor speech about race and racism, including bans on “critical race theory,” the new crop of bills demonstrates a coordinated shift toward silencing discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 schools. The majority of LGBTQ+ focused bills introduced in 2023 were modeled after Florida’s HB 1557, dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” law, underscoring the growing coordination among censorship advocates across state lines.

At the same time, legislators looking to censor higher education have pivoted from stifling faculty speech directly to effectively kicking the legs out from the structures that guarantee academic freedom. These include new proposed restrictions on university autonomy and governance, curricula, faculty tenure, diversity, equity and inclusion offices and initiatives, and accreditation agencies. PEN America notes that this strategic recalibration follows stiff opposition to early attempts to censor faculty from the courts, governing boards, accreditors, and faculty unions.

“We’re nearly three years into the reactionary campaign to muzzle free speech in schools, and the results paint a disturbing picture of the state of public education in America,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education Programs at PEN America. “Through brute legislative force, state lawmakers are transforming our schools into ideological battlegrounds, forcing students and educators to operate in a pervasive climate of fear. But these tactics remain as unpopular as they are dangerous, and the vast majority of people who value the freedom to learn will not stop resisting their pernicious efforts.”

The report also includes a wide compilation of firsthand accounts from teachers and faculty members who have been impacted by educational gag orders in their respective states. Their reflections, pulled from recent public surveys, depict a bleak atmosphere of fear and anxiety that has led to self-censorship by educators in affected states across the country, highlighting the human impact of the data in the report.

Among the report’s other major findings:

  • Of the 110 educational gag orders introduced this year, 39 bills would restrict how educators teach and discuss sexual orientation and gender identity — with about three out of every four of these modeled on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
  • Over a quarter (29) of the 111 educational gag order bills target higher education, and 17 additional censorship bills focus on restricting the autonomy and governance of colleges and universities including DEI bans, tenure restrictions, curricular control bills, and accreditation restrictions.
  • Although race-focused gag orders were still half of the bills proposed in 2023, few of them passed, and only one bill (Missouri’s SB 42) explicitly targeted the 1619 Project, compared to 15 bills in 2022. This finding is a reflection of the fact that race-focused gag orders have proven to be overwhelmingly unpopular in the past two years.
    • A 2022 survey from APM Research/Pennsylvania State University indicated that only 13 percent of the public believes that state lawmakers should have a “great deal of influence” over whether or how racism and slavery are discussed in the classroom.
  • Educational gag orders have created an atmosphere of profound fear and anxiety for both public school educators and higher ed faculty. One of the most notable studies on this issue, a 2022 RAND Corporation survey of 8,000 K-12 educators, found that 52 percent of teachers in states with educational gag orders say that these laws have affected what and how they teach.

The report also sheds light on the various tracks of resistance to educational gag orders across the country, including at least 13 pending lawsuits — nearly half of which are in Florida — challenging gag orders. There is also significant political pushback against these bills, with a growing coalition of elected officials, teachers and faculty unions, parents, industry groups, and advocacy organizations like PEN America leading the fight against educational censorship.

This publication expands on PEN America’s August 2022 report on educational gag orders, as well as its recent September 2023 book ban report, which found a 33 percent spike in book bans in the 2022-23 school year compared to the previous year.


About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free 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, [email protected], 201-247-5057