Rapid rise of ‘gag orders’ reveals a new appetite for K-12 censorship

Anti-LGBTQ+ activists emboldened by critical race theory controversies, experts say.
By: | February 15, 2022

A steep rise in educational “gag orders” over the last year threatens to place more restrictions on what can be taught in schools in dozens of states.

In 2022 alone, 102 bills targetting instruction in K-12 and higher ed and that “feature severe punishments” have been introduced in state legislatures, according to PEN America, an anti-censorship organization.

Among the 100 of the bills currently under consideration, one would make it a misdemeanor for a teacher to cover homosexuality and another would require schools to consult parents before asking a student about their preferred pronouns.

Since January 2021, 155 educational gag order bills have been introduced or pre-filed in 38 states, with a dozen becoming law in 10 states, the organization says.

A growing number of the bills—15 in eight states—seek to restrict teaching about LGBTQ identities and issues, including Florida House Bill 1557, which critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The proposal would prevent elementary school teachers from leading discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity and place some limitations on teachers in higher grades.

Anti-LGBTQ+ activists had previously struggled to influence K-12 instruction. But recent efforts have gained momentum from the anti-critical race theory movement, which “has primed the public to support sweeping censorship of classroom speech,” says Jeffrey Sachs and Jonathan Friedman of PEN America. “For anti-LGBTQ+ activists, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, a chance to ram through bills that are far more restrictive than anything the public would normally accept,” they say. “The goal is quite simply to lock LGBTQ+ topics on the wrong side of the schoolhouse gate.”

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Here’s a look at some of the bills under consideration:

  1. Kansas’s HB 2662: This “parents’ rights” measure sets rules about where K-12 curricular materials must be posted and how parents should be notified, with some anti-CRT language. The bill would also change the state’s obscenity law, making it a class B misdemeanor for a teacher to use any material depicting “homosexuality.”
  2. South Carolina H 4605: Prohibits teaching one race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another, and similar concepts. Also forbids teachers from covering “controversial and age-inappropriate topics” such as “gender identity or lifestyles.”
  3. Indiana HB 104: Prohibits teachers from discussing “sexual orientation,” “transgenderism,” or “gender identity” without parental consent.
  4. Arizona HB 2011: Requires students to get parents’ permission before they join school clubs “involving sexuality, gender or gender identity.” This means students in the LGBTQ community would have to come out to their parents before seeking support from classmates.
  5. Tennessee HB 800: Prohibit public schools from adopting instructional materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”
  6. North Carolina’s S 514: Requires teachers and college faculty to report to a parent if a child displays signs of “gender nonconformity.”

‘No recent parallel’

Oklahoma has been a hotbed of “educational gag order” activity, with 10 proposals that aim to limit instruction and restrict library collections, Sachs and Friedman say.

Senate Bill 1142 would bar books that focus on sex, sexual preferences or gender identity or, simply, books of a sexual nature that parents might object to their children reading. SB 1654 bans teachers from assigning such books. SB 1470 forbids public schools from employing anyone who “promotes positions in the classroom or at any function of the public school that is in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students.”

“From book bans to educational gag orders, schools and universities are being threatened today to a degree that has no recent parallel,” Sachs and Friedman say. “There is a willingness, and even eagerness, to bring the weight and power of government to bear on controlling classroom speech.”