Nearly 400 “educational intimidation” bills have been introduced by state lawmakers over the last two and a half years, a troubling sign of where academic freedom in this country is headed.
Between January 2021 and June 2023, Republicans in state legislatures introduced 392 educational intimidation bills, according to a new report published Wednesday from PEN America. While only 38 of those bills actually passed, this tidal wave of legislation represents an ongoing campaign to make teachers afraid to teach.
PEN America classifies educational intimidation bills as different from traditional “educational gag orders,” which explicitly prohibit materials and subject matter that can be taught in classrooms. Educational intimidation bills do not act as direct censorship, but rather encourage self-censorship from teachers, librarians, and administrators by creating environments where free speech is chilled. They often bill themselves as “parental rights” bills, hiding their radical nature behind more neutral language.
Missouri has introduced 30 such bills, the most of any state in the country, but all of the measures failed. Florida was able to pass the most, with 15 pieces of legislation signed into state law, thanks in large part to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who has led a “war on woke” in education.
According to PEN America, these bills have been able to become so popular because of clever rhetorical framing.
“By framing such bills in terms of ‘curriculum transparency’ and ‘parental rights,’ supporters hope to make them appear benign—as simple common sense,” the report by PEN America said. “They are not.”
The bills contain provisions allowing for enhanced inspection of curricula, teachers, and library facilities. Some allow opt-outs so that parents can remove their children from certain kinds of instruction, or institute opt-ins requiring parents to proactively approve certain material, thus making restriction the default of education. Many of the bills also expand student and classroom monitoring.
These educational intimidation bills are based on model legislation prepared by conservative think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, the Goldwater Institute, No Left Turn in Education, and the Parental Rights Foundation.
Manhattan Institute senior fellow Chris Rufo is quoted in the report, explaining the rhetorical shift from gag orders to educational intimidation.
“The Left will expect that, after passing so-called ‘CRT bans’ last year, we will overplay our hand. By moving to curriculum transparency, we will deflate that argument and bait the Left into opposing ‘transparency,’” Rufo said in 2022.
Around 45 percent of the bills PEN America tracked also included an anti-LGBTQ provision, like the mandatory outing of students via reporting mechanisms for parents to be alerted of any “perceived changes to students’ gender identity and sexual orientation.”
Other anti-LGBTQ provisions include banning the use of preferred pronouns, discouraging discussions about gender and sexuality, and placing pressure on teachers and administration to limit their speech, as well as to monitor and police the expression of their students.
So far in 2023, 17 educational intimidation bills have passed. Perhaps with the introduction of the “educational intimidation” label, the left will have its own rhetorical device to fight those who seek to limit free speech, the rights of students, and the rights of other parents.