Such bills represent a growing effort to "hijack public education in America," said PEN America's Jonathan Friedman.
Over the past two and a half years, Republicans across the United States have introduced nearly 380 bills aimed at establishing a climate of fear among educators, librarians, and other school officials, according to a report released Wednesday by the free expression group PEN America.
Distinct from the outright censorship measures that GOP lawmakers have unveiled in a number of U.S. states in recent years, "educational intimidation" bills "pressure educators to be more timid in the content they teach, pressure librarians to be more restrictive in the books they make available to students, and pressure students to limit their self-expression, without imposing direct prohibitions," the new report notes.
"Put simply, these 'educational intimidation' provisions, as we dub them, empower the use of intimidation tactics to cast a broad chilling effect over K-12 classrooms by mandating new and intrusive forms of inspection or monitoring of schools, as well as new ways for members of the public—including, in some cases, citizens with no direct connection to the schools—to object to whatever they see that they do not like," the report adds.
Often introduced under the guise of protecting "parental rights," such bills require students to receive approval from their parents before taking part in any instruction related to gender identity, give parents and other state residents more power to review and protest instructional materials, prohibit school libraries from offering any material not deemed "age-appropriate," and more.
Between January 2021 and June 2023, PEN America found, a total of 392 educational intimidation bills were introduced across the U.S.—with the GOP leading 377 of them—and nearly 40 were signed into law in 19 states. Over roughly that same period, teachers and librarians reported a surge in written and verbal threats related to topics considered "politically controversial."
"Of the intimidation bills introduced in 2023," PEN observed, "45% have an anti-LGBTQ+ provision, including the forced outing of students."
Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education programs at PEN America, said that the "rising tide of educational intimidation exposes the movement that cloaks itself in the language of 'parental rights' for what it really is: a smoke screen for efforts to suppress teaching and learning and hijack public education in America."
"The opportunity for parents to inspect and object to school curricula is already commonly granted in public school systems, as it should be," Friedman added. "But this spate of provisions dramatically expands these powers in ways that are designed to spur schools and educators to self-censor. These bills risk turning every classroom into an ideological battleground, forcing teachers out of the profession, and jeopardizing the future of millions of students."
"These bills are not what they seem. They are the next phase in a years-long campaign to incite panic and impose ideological strictures on schools."
Missouri lawmakers have introduced the most educational intimidation bills in the U.S. at 31, with Texas, Oklahoma, and South Carolina not far behind.
"Florida, perhaps the country's greatest laboratory for educational censorship, has already demonstrated the dangers posed by such measures," PEN America noted.
As the new report explains:
HB 1467, enacted in 2022, requires school districts to take actions that sound reasonable on their face: to post online, in a “searchable format,” a list of all instructional materials used in the district and a list of all library materials and mandatory reading lists.47 Rules from the Florida Board of Education clarified that this law extends to classroom libraries, meaning educators have to include all books in one's classroom in a search database as well...
In Florida and across the country, many school districts already make their library catalogs available to parents or members of the public. But in legislating them to do so, especially when in conjunction with reinforcing citizens’ rights to lodge objections and requiring objections to be reported to the state, the true intent of the law becomes clear: to encourage ideologues to use the law to scan school collections and protest inclusion of any books to which they object, and to mobilize state pressure on local school districts. Indeed, the net effect of the bill has been to prompt librarians and educators to take the most risk-averse approach possible toward potentially controversial books. Reports out of Florida's Manatee and Duval Counties have detailed the near-total suspension of students' access to classroom libraries while collections underwent new processes of review in response to the law.
HB 1467 has also made it easier for censorship-minded activists to use school districts' published lists of instructional materials and library resources as targets for their ideological offensives. In Clay County, Bruce Friedman, leader of the local chapter of No Left Turn in Education, has been successful at getting hundreds of books temporarily or permanently removed from school library shelves, and has told journalists he has a list of thousands of titles to challenge. The same scenario is playing out in Florida's St. Lucie County, where Dale Galiano, a local retiree with no children in the school system, has made it her mission to challenge what she considers inappropriate books.
Republicans at the federal level have embraced the sweeping educational intimidation push.
PEN America's report points to a 2022 Republican National Committee memo encouraging candidates to focus on "parental rights" instead of critical race theory, which the GOP has turned into a bogeyman and used to justify further attacks on public education.
In March, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act, legislation that resembles educational intimidation bills introduced at the state level.
"These bills are not what they seem," Friedman said Wednesday. "They are the next phase in a years-long campaign to incite panic and impose ideological strictures on schools. Education in a democracy must be characterized by openness and curiosity, by the freedom to read, learn, and think. These bills strike at that foundation, in novel, sometimes subtle, yet potentially irrevocable ways. Their spread should not be taken lightly."