Bills introduced in state legislatures across the country increasingly target higher education and the discussion of race, racism and gender in classrooms and university curricula.
That’s according to new data from PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, which began tracking all such bills, including those targeting K-12, in January 2021. Until now, 70 bills — which PEN America calls “educational gag orders.” — have been introduced in 28 states, with 56 more to come in 2022. The resumption signals an increased effort by lawmakers in those states to limit discussion of certain topics on campuses, according to the group.
A total of 42% of these legislative proposals targeted higher education in 2022, up from 26% last year. Most of them were introduced by Republicans concerned about what they see as liberal indoctrination on campuses.
Although the bills come from different state houses across the United States, most of them share a similar goal: to fight against the teaching of critical race theory and other subjects that the lawmakers have dubbed it “divisive concepts”.
On Wednesday, PEN America and the American Association of Colleges and Universities, which represents more than 1,000 colleges and advocates for liberal arts education, released a joint statement to draw attention to the threat these bills pose to Higher Education.
Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America, said that as a free speech advocacy organization, PEN America recognizes that “not all threats to free speech are created equal.” The most concerning threats, Nossel said, are those that go directly against the First Amendment.
“Legislation that dictates what can and cannot be taught in the classroom is really at the top of that pyramid,” she said. Nossel added that the issue transcends politics and that university leaders should speak publicly about how these bills could harm colleges.
Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U and former president of Mount Holyoke College, said the legislation threatens the independence of colleges, which is important for academic quality and integrity. Freedom from undue political influence is also required by accreditation agencies, she said. (Accreditors regulate colleges’ access to federal financial aid.)
Legislation “dictating what can and cannot be taught in the classroom is really at the top of this pyramid”.
Increasingly, the bills are starting to have real consequences for colleges, according to the two organizations. Of the 70 proposed bills, seven have become law in seven states — all of which have Republican legislatures and governors — four of which have gone into effect since March.
One of these new laws is in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers have championed the “Stop WOKE Act,” which prohibits colleges from coercing anyone into believing, among other things, “that an individual … bears personal responsibility and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress due to actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin.
After the bill passed in April, the University of Florida sent a presentation to faculty members on understanding the new law, urging them to “allow students to come to their own conclusions without bias. ‘instructor,’ meaning “not to impose personal opinions on controversial topics.” University leaders have also warned that breaking the law could cost them millions in public funding.
At Iowa State University, where there’s also state law on the books, faculty members have been instructed not to “draw attention” to their classes, according to PEN America. .
In April, the governor of Tennessee signed a bill focusing on 16 “dividing concepts”, such as Tennessee or the United States being described as “fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist”.
Before the bill was signed into law, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville released a statement regarding the bill and the university’s concern “about the potential chill that faculty and staff may feel about the outstanding job they do”.
Legislation, said Jeremy C. Young, senior director of free speech and education at PEN America, can create “a chilling effect even when they don’t explicitly ban something.”