Respect Equality

Bills to ban LGBTQ+ topics from classrooms threaten free speech, report says

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Story at a glance

  • Bills in state legislatures targeting LGBTQ+ topics represent a “national assault” on free speech, the nonprofit freedom of expression group PEN America said Tuesday.
  • More than 150 “educational gag order” bills have been introduced or prefiled in 38 states since January of last year, according to PEN America.
  • Those who support the bills often say they are trying to protect students against classroom “indoctrination.”

A slew of mostly Republican-backed bills moving through state legislatures that target the LGBTQ+ community represent a “national assault” on the U.S. education system and the free speech of teachers and students, the nonprofit PEN America said Tuesday.

More than 100 bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year, many of which aim to censor educators and feature severe punishments, according to a report by PEN America, which works to defend freedom of expression.

According to PEN America, more than 150 “educational gag order” bills have been introduced or prefiled in 38 states since January of last year. Twelve of them have become law in 10 states and 113 are currently live in 34 states.

More than 100 of the live bills target K-12 schools, according to PEN America, and 48 target higher education. More than 60 include a mandatory punishment for those found violating the laws.


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“From book bans to educational gag orders, schools and universities are being threatened today to a degree that has no recent parallel,” PEN America said in a statement. “There is a willingness, and even eagerness, to bring the weight and power of government to bear on controlling classroom speech. And as is always the case in such times, students will be the ones to pay the price.”

One of the bills spotlighted in the PEN America report is Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would prohibit educators from speaking about gender identity or sexual orientation in a manner that is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

A similar bill in Indiana would bar educators from discussing in any context “sexual orientation,” “transgenderism,” or “gender identity” without parental consent.

“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,” PEN America said. “The goal is quite simply to lock LGBTQ+ topics on the wrong side of the schoolhouse gate.”

Anti-LGBTQ+ advocates are also converging with the anti-CRT, or Critical Race Theory movement, PEN America said, the latter of which has “primed the public to support sweeping censorship of classroom speech.”

Lawmakers who support or sponsor these bills often argue that they will protect students against classroom “indoctrination.”

While introducing an Oklahoma Senate bill in December that would prohibit public school districts and libraries from making books about sexual orientation or gender identity available to students, state Sen. Rob Standridge (R) said he believed public schools were using their resources to “indoctrinate” students.

“Our education system is not the place to teach moral lessons that should instead be left up to parents and families,” Standridge said at the time. “Unfortunately, however, more and more schools are trying to indoctrinate students by exposing them to gender, sexual and racial identity curriculums and courses. My bills will ensure these types of lessons stay at home and out of the classroom.”


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