(NEW YORK) – A package of three proposed Texas bills, introduced as part of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priority agenda for the 2023 legislative session, would create “a pervasive climate of fear and self-censorship” on college campuses that would render Texas higher education “inhospitable for free expression,” PEN America said today.

“Taken together, SB 16, 17, and 18 would make Texas public higher education inhospitable for free expression,” said Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.  “Among other provisions, the bills could make it illegal for college faculty to suggest that racism is bad; ban faculty tenure and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives; put control over university curricula in the hands of political appointees; and create a statewide blacklist for faculty and staff who violate vague rules related to viewpoints about race and gender identity. The bills would also require universities to commit to fostering ‘viewpoint diversity’ – on its face a laudable proposition – but ironically, it comes tucked in a bill that is unquestionably  designed to restrict some viewpoints.”

The three bills in the Lt. Governor’s priority agenda contain the following provisions of concern for free speech advocates:

  • SB 16, filed by Sen. Bryan Hughes, is an educational gag order that would ban compelling students to believe that “any race, sex, or ethnicity or social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to any other race, sex, ethnicity, or belief.” The inclusion of “social belief” is highly unusual and could open the door to a wide variety of restrictions, such as requiring teachers to say that racism or slavery are not inherently wrong.
  • SB 17, filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, would ban DEI offices and the use of diversity statements, including unsolicited comments in support of diversity initiatives by job candidates, during hiring and promotion. These are decisions that are best left up to university governance processes, not dictated by legislatures. The bill defines “DEI offices” broadly, including any unit that promotes policies or conducts trainings “designed or implemented in reference to race [or] gender identity,” a definition that could apply to all sorts of campus activities. Employees who violate the law, including tenured faculty, would be blacklisted by the state from working at any university for a year, or for five years after a second violation. University-level violations are punishable by a $1 million fine. The bill would also enable boards of trustees to veto faculty job postings and courses in the core curriculum, and would insert required text committing universities to institutional neutrality and viewpoint diversity into their mission statements. This is an ironic twist given the restrictions in the rest of the bill.
  • SB 18, also filed by Sen. Creighton, would ban tenure for all new public college and university faculty in Texas, and would also ban long-term contracts that did not contain an annual review process. This would remove a protection for free expression among some professors and would make it more difficult for Texas institutions to recruit and retain high-quality faculty.

Young said: “Should these bills become law, they will cast a pall of orthodoxy over Texas public universities, creating a pervasive climate of fear and self-censorship. Texas colleges will have difficulty recruiting or retaining faculty, staff and students, and those who remain will see their educational environment eroded and devalued. Higher education censorship bills such as SB 16, 17, and 18 damage a society’s ability to prepare its young people for effective citizenship, and are thus a significant threat to democracy.”

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.