PEN America Tracks ‘Educational Gag Orders’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The US chapter of PEN International has issued its May overview of education-based efforts in censorship and policy changes.

Classroom desks outside William Cullen High School in Queens, a borough of New York City, September 20, 2020. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Massimo Giachetti

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Any Instruction Related to Human Sexuality and More’
As efforts, mostly from the political right, continue in the United States to promote legislative efforts at literary censorship—with repercussions being felt in many other countries and markets of the world publishing industry we cover—we turn today (May 26) to the latest monthly report from PEN America, the States’ highly influential freedom-of-expression and -publication watchdog organization.

As a matter of fact, many Publishing Perspectives readers will recall that the 100-year-old PEN America and co-plaintiffs including Penguin Random House have filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against a school district in the state of Florida for “unlawfully removing or restricting access to books on race, racism, and LGBTQ identities.”

While this news medium’s focus is not exclusively on American news—nor on that of any other single market—censorious attacks on the freedom to publish and freedom of speech have become a hallmark of the authoritarian conservative impulses coursing through the body politic of many democracies today and are frequently couched in the content and operational norms of book publishing and the educational communities it may serve. Thus, we commend the seriousness of these issues to our readership and are making a conscious decision to focus on them when the need presents itself.

‘Educational Gag Orders’

One of the key mechanisms of censorship addressed in this new report is “educational gag orders.” These are instances of legislative moves also called “DEI ban bills,” with DEI being the quick-and-easy acronym for diversity, equality, and inclusion, of course. The three terms have been bundled as “DEI” with special vigor in the corporate sector, where staff communications and pronouncements of corporate-responsibility efforts are

What the analysts working on PEN’s monthly survey of the field say now is, in part, “We find that, in reality, these bills go far beyond banning DEI initiatives to enable the partisan takeover of many aspects of university governance.” And this, of course, raises the level of concern, universities having labored for decades to maintain their free-speech constructs for students, faculty members, and their communities.

Helping to illustrate their point, the PEN team lists these facts:

  • Since January 2021, 306 educational gag order bills have been introduced in 45 different states
  •  Twenty-six have become law in 17 states (3 are not currently in effect)
  • Two additional states have enacted educational gag orders via policies or executive orders
  • Some 125 million Americans live in the 20 states where an educational gag order is in effect
  • Eighty-one educational gag orders are currently live

Of those educational gag orders that are active now:

  • Seventy-four target K-12 schools
  • Twenty-two target higher education
  • Thirty-eight provide for punishment of those found in violation

In a parallel trend of disruptive energy explicated by the Association of American Publishers‘ president and CEO Maria A. Pallante, much of the dynamic playing out here has to do with directionality: these efforts in censorship are devised to attack free speech and publishing at the state- and county-jurisdictional level, far from the federal and constitutional statutes they defy.

Highlights: Three New State Laws and Policies

Jeffrey Sachs

The report also focuses on three new state laws and policies. Those in our international readership who are following developments in the race for the US Republican presidential primary may not be surprised to know that two of the three are in Florida, the governor of which, Ron DeSantis, is challenging Donald Trump for the nomination.

As delineated by PEN:

  1. In Florida’s Senate Bill  266, public colleges and universities are forbidden “from expending any state or federal funds on any program or campus activity that violates last year’s House Bill 7 (the “Stop ‘Woke’ Act”), by advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or that promotes or engages in political or social activism.” Woke, of course, is an urban-culture synonym for politically correct–as in being awakened or “woke” to behavior or speech that might be discriminatory. The term was popularized during the height of the Trump-term Black Lives Matter protests and heavily co-opted by many on the right, who use it as a sneer. As PEN’s discussion puts it, in part, “Governing boards will now be required to review their institutions’ mission statements and curricula for violations of the Stop WOKE Act, as well as for programs that are based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, or privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, or economic inequities.”
  2. Also in Florida, House Bill 1069 “prohibits public K-12 staffers [education levels kindergarten through 12th grade] from using in reference to themselves a preferred personal title or pronoun when communicating to a student if that title or pronoun does not correspond to the staff member’s biological sex. No classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity may be offered in pre-K to grade 8. All instructional materials used as part of a health studies curriculum must classify individuals according to their biological sex and receive approval from the state department of education. Any parent or resident of a county may challenge material contained within a school, including if the material allegedly ‘depicts or describes sexual content.’ Material challenged for being ‘pornographic’ or for containing ‘sexual conduct’ must be made immediately inaccessible to students pending the outcome of an investigation.”
  3. And third in PEN’s list for this month of highlighted state laws and policy is House Bill 1608 in the midwestern state of Indiana, a law that “that prohibits public K-12 schools from providing any instruction related to ‘human sexuality’ in pre-K to grade 3.”

Jeremy C. Young

For those who would like to read the entire report—available in full here—the remainder of the study is given primarily to perceived threats to free expression and intellectual authenticity on university campuses, in DeSantis’ campaign base of Florida and in Ohio. A useful Google sheet is being made by PEN America, too, in which you can track various instances of challenging policy, legislative action, and freedom of expression.

The task for the international book publishing business and its nearby creative industries, of course, is to devise the most effective and appropriate responses and positions to threats in a time of pervasive and virulent challenges to some of the most fundamentally critical bases for publishing’s work.

The May monthly update from PEN America, issued on Thursday (May 25) for our reportage today, is compiled by Jeffrey Sachs and Jeremy C. Young.

More classroom desks outside William Cullen High School in Queens, a borough of New York City, September 20, 2020. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Massimo Giachetti


 More from Publishing Perspectives on issues around censorship is here, more on the freedom to publish and the freedom of expression is here, more on PEN America and its work is here, and more on Penguin Random House is here. More on the United States’ book publishing market is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.