Six Dangerous Bills That Would Censor Speech on Campuses Across the Country
It has been a tumultuous few months for higher ed. Responding to low public trust, raucous protest, and rising incidents of both antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus, legislators are doubling down on their yearslong campaign to destabilize academia, censor college classrooms, and wear down the safeguards that help protect academic freedom.
Here are six terrible higher education bills we’re tracking right now, including one that has already become law:
Utah’s Anti-DEI Law
Utah’s newly signed HB 261 bans diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in public colleges and universities, even though the state’s higher education commissioner testified that the bill’s fast-tracked journey through the legislature hadn’t left him enough time to thoroughly review the language.
Among other provisions, the bill prohibits mandatory DEI trainings, or even using the term “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in an official capacity – it requires any current DEI efforts to rebrand to “student success and support.” The law also mandates that institutions remain neutral on a broad swath of specific concepts, including “critical race theory” and “bias.” This vague clause means that the promotion of a faculty member’s new book on critical race theory or research into workplace bias could be construed to violate this provision.
Similar provisions will be enacted at the K-12 level.
Florida Takes Stop WOKE to Teachers
Florida’s SB 1372 is an educational gag order that would prohibit a laundry list of concepts from being taught in teacher education programs at both public and private universities – jeopardizing the integrity of higher education and the quality of K-12 instruction. Professors would be prohibited from teaching future K-12 teachers anything related to “systemic racism” or “identity politics” — concepts that are not defined in the bill. Similarly banned are any of the concepts in the Stop WOKE Act, which was enjoined by a federal judge due to its intrusions on First Amendment rights.
This means that not only is the academic freedom of professors in teacher preparation programs being trampled upon, but that a critical piece of the pipeline for creating K-12 teachers will now include ideological dictates from the state. Future elementary and high school teachers who cannot learn how to discuss race, gender, or related topics will be unable to teach future students how to do the same.
PEN America has submitted a letter to the legislature objecting to this bill on the grounds that it would infringe upon academic freedom and endanger the quality of K-12 education in one fell swoop.
Florida Chills Political Speech on Campus
Elsewhere in Florida, students are the target of two new measures, SB 470 and its companion bill HB 465, which would deprive any student who “promotes” a federally recognized foreign terrorist organization of in-state tuition and state financial aid. Though the bill specifies that it includes all terrorist groups designated by the State Department, it also singles out both Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad.
The bill follows efforts by the Florida Department of Education to ban the student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on state campuses on the basis that the group provided “material support” to Hamas. That claim was based on the content of a “toolkit” issued by National SJP calling the deadly October 7 Hamas attack on Israel a “historic win” and stating that “We as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.” – written statements that do not meet the definition of “material support” under state or federal law.
The new bills suffer from similarly fatal flaws. The expression of ideas that are disturbing, hateful, extreme — or even offering verbal support for violence or terrorism — are protected under the First Amendment. The bill contains no definition of “promotion,” nor how to distinguish it from other protected forms of expression, be it academic, artistic, or political. This vague provision could discourage research inquiries, chill class discussions, and shrink the boundaries of artistic freedom out of fear that speech might be viewed as promoting opinions shared by terrorist groups. What it means to “promote” a terrorist organization would become subject to ambiguous interpretation and enforcement that threatens constitutionally protected speech. Amid robust political debate on campuses over the Israel-Hamas war, the bills risk chilling the speech of pro-Palestinian voices, forming part of a pattern PEN America has documented elsewhere.
The bill also includes new threats of immigration enforcement for students on an F-1 visa who “promote” terrorist groups. However, the federal Immigration and Naturalization Act already provides that individuals can be disqualified from student visas or have their visa revoked if they “endorse or espouse” terror activity, and these federal restrictions must be enforced in ways that do not infringe on First Amendment freedoms. Florida’s effort to supplant those clear, enumerated legal definitions with vague prohibitions concerning the “promotion” of terrorism are both needless and risk chilling the expression of visa-holding students.
Iowa’s War on ‘Terrorism’
Florida is not alone in seeking to expand the bounds of existing law in ways that infringe on speech rights. Iowa legislators are considering a similar bill, HF 2077, that would require public colleges and universities to deny recognition to any student group for its “endorsement or promotion” of either terrorism or a specific action of a foreign terrorist group. The measure is even vaguer than Florida SB 470, punishing not just the promotion of specific terrorist organizations but the concept of “terrorism” itself – which the bill leaves up to interpretation. It would also make individual students found guilty of violating the law ineligible for state financial aid. As in Florida, relying on nebulous definitions that clearly encompass speech, it would threaten the free expression and exchange of ideas protected by the First Amendment, and as in Florida, it seems motivated by a desire to censor pro-Palestinian speech.
Remarkably, this bill also applies to private institutions by targeting students’ ability to receive tuition equalization grants from the state, and the entire bill is enforceable by the state Attorney General. This escalation would imperil the free speech rights of students even at private schools, which generally have far more latitude to make their own speech policies than public universities do.
Oklahoma Opts Out of Race and Gender Discussions
Were Oklahoma SB 1305 to become law, college students in Oklahoma could not be required to take any class that teaches them anything about whiteness, gender identity, implicit bias, intersectionality, cultural competence, critical theory, systemic racism, allyship, race- or gender-based diversity, equity, or inclusion, microaggressions, or social justice.
If a course is interpreted to include those concepts, or if a professor wishes to curate materials based on the race or gender of the author (in a course about Black literature or women in film, for example), then the course would not be eligible to be taken for general education credit. Such requirements would effectively prohibit well-rounded general education offerings, weakening enrollments in excluded departments and limiting the range of ideas available to every student.
The breadth of topics that would be rendered off limits is almost as shocking as the disclaimer at the end of the bill, which says that the intent of this bill is not to infringe on the academic freedom of faculty.
Indiana Watches for Diversity and ‘Divisive Concepts’
Indiana legislators have also taken a hint from school boards across the country, opting to mandate “transparency” in a bid to root out critical race theory from curriculum in public higher ed. SB 191 would require universities to post all syllabi, reading lists, assignments, and final grades online, specifically “in order to assess the extent to which a divisive concept may have been included or has otherwise affected curriculum.”
The bill would also prohibit mandatory diversity trainings, and it would even bar administrations from paying for any travel to conferences, subscriptions to journals, or entry fee for programs that endorse or promote “divisive concepts,” hamstringing departments’ ability to support students and faculty in their academic pursuits. The bill could be used to gut higher education in Indiana, preventing grad students from presenting their research to peers and mentors, turbocharging online abuse of professors, and adding unfunded administrative burdens via costly website mandates. A fiscal note attached to the bill acknowledges that universities “will experience short- and long-term workload increases as a result of this bill,” making it effectively an unfunded mandate.
These bills, and more like them, are tracked in PEN America’s Index of Educational Gag Orders.