Legislation targeting how race, gender and history is casting a "chilling effect" over educators and educational institutions across the nation, PEN America says.
CNN  — 

Lawmakers in 24 states have tried to restrict how topics like racism, sexism, and American history are being taught in American schools this year, an analysis by the free expression group PEN America shows.

Critical race theory (CRT) became a social and political lightning rod last year and in recent months the debate has led to protests, riotous school board meetings, school board recall efforts, and confusion among educators. In a new report published Monday, PEN America details the “educational gag orders” that lawmakers have introduced in nearly half of states across the nation to ban the teaching of the theory.

“Anyone who cares about freedom of speech and democratic values should be appalled by these exclusionary bills,” said Jonathan Friedman, one of the report’s authors and the group’s director of free expression and education. “Educational gag orders muzzle entire subject areas, scare teachers from engaging in important discussions, and deprive students of opportunities to ask questions, learn, and grow. These intrusive bans have no place in our classrooms and institutions.”

From January to September, a total of 54 bills concerning K-12 schools, higher education institutions and state agencies were introduced, the report says. Eleven of those bills have become laws in nine states, including Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. The report’s authors said they included bills that were still pending in the current legislative session, and six that were pre-filed for 2022.

The report’s goal is to sound the alarm on the bills, which if taken together they “amount to a sweeping crusade for content- and viewpoint-based state censorship,” the report says.

The authors said they chose to describe the bills as “educational gag orders” because it captures their actual and intended effect, which is to stop educators from introducing specific subjects, ideas, or arguments in the classroom or during training sessions.

Some of the bills already have cast a “chilling effect” over educators and educational institutions, the report says. One of the reasons for that is because the language used in many of the bills is vague and it would mean that the legislation would be applied “broadly and arbitrarily, threatening to effectively ban a wide swath of literature, curriculum, historical materials.”

In Texas, some school districts made curriculum changes “out of caution” in September in response to HB3979, one of bills mentioned in the report went into effect but the law doesn’t detail is set to be enforced.

The report mentions how a school district administrator in North Texas told teachers that if they have books about the Holocaust in their classroom libraries, then they should also include books that have “opposing” views of the Holocaust.

PEN America says the adoption of the bills demonstrates “a disregard for academic freedom, liberal education, and the values of free speech.”

The bills, which target discussions of race, gender issues and other “divisive” topics, are likely to disproportionately impact students and educators of color while being “misleadingly framed as protecting free speech and academic inquiry.”

“Ultimately, these bills are a painful demonstration of the yawning chasm between many legislators’ professed commitment to the principle of free speech, and their willingness to use the machinery of government to silence the speech of those with whom they disagree,” the report says.