Since 2021, PEN America has documented the rise of state laws that have sought to directly censor books and curricula in schools and libraries under the guise of “parental rights.” But a new report released this week documents the rise of a new wave of state legislation designed to force librarians and educators to self-censor.

The report, Educational Intimidation: How ‘Parental Rights’ Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn, tracks the introduction of nearly 400 bills across the nation that target the work of professional teachers, librarians, and school administrators. But unlike the more direct “educational gag orders” that PEN America has previously tracked (bills and policies that directly ban what can be taught in schools and libraries), these "educational intimidation" bills, a number of which have passed and become law, lead to censorship in schools through more indirect mechanisms, such as requiring opt outs for certain lessons or creating new standards to evaluate and challenge books.

“Fear is the new watchword in public education,” the report bluntly states. “While transparency for public institutions and the promotion of parental involvement in schools are common sense propositions, these bills have an ulterior motive driving them: to empower a vocal and censorship-minded minority with greater opportunity to scrutinize public education and intimidate educators with threats of punishment.”

The report looks at the history and organizations behind this new wave of bills, and offers a “comprehensive taxonomy" of recent efforts, including an Index of Educational Intimidation Bills that shows the variety of laws being employed. These include burdensome inspection provisions for classrooms, teachers, and libraries; opt outs that essentially create an "à la carte" curriculum; "harmful to minors" laws that expand what is considered "obscene," often with provisions that criminalize librarians and educators who violate these vague new definitions; and a host of anti-DEI and anti-LGBTQ+ measures and "parental rights enforcement mechanisms," like tip lines.

These bills have an ulterior motive driving them: to empower a vocal and censorship-minded minority.

As an example, the report tells of an art teacher in Tennessee who no longer teaches Frida Kahlo or Keith Haring because the state’s recently passed HB 529 requires teachers to alert parents to any LGBTQ+ content so they can withdraw their children from the lesson. The report also notes recently enacted laws in nine states that require educators to notify parents of any changes to their child’s gender expression or sexual orientation.

The report points to three “principal dangers” from the rise of these "educational intimidation" laws: They “spur self-censorship” by making instruction more burdensome, costly, or risky; they make schools “a less welcoming place for students to freely express themselves,” especially for LGBTQ+ students, who are often targeted by such laws; and, such laws empower a handful of parents (and in some cases one parent) to “make decisions about what can be taught or read,” at a school or in a library, thus “disempowering" the majority of parents” in favor of a vocal minority.

“These bills are not what they seem,” Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, warned in a release. “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.”

Among the report's key findings:

  • The report identifies 392 such “educational intimidation bills” introduced in state legislatures between January 2021 and June 2023. Of these, 38 have passed into law in 19 states. An additional nine policies have been adopted via executive order or enacted as part of state regulatory policy.
  • Missouri (30) has introduced the most educational intimidation bills in the nation, followed by Texas (21), Oklahoma (20), South Carolina (18), Indiana (17) and Mississippi (16).
  • Of the intimidation bills introduced in 2023, 45% include anti-LGBTQ+ provisions, including 80 bills that would force teachers to forcibly “out” students to their parents across a number of states
  • The bills overwhelmingly emanate from conservative legislators. Of the 392 bills tracked, 377 have been introduced by Republicans.

The report also finds that most of these state legislative measures are being incubated by “a small group of conservative think tanks" and activist groups, with such bills "overwhelmingly" being introduced by the political right. “Most educational intimidation bills are based on model legislation prepared by a small collection of conservative think tanks and activist groups, including the Manhattan Institute, the Goldwater Institute, and No Left Turn in Education,” the report finds, noting that the "volume and pace of these proposals represents a startling uptick in this ideological attack on public education."

For educators and librarians, the result is "more combative and stressful places to work,” and harassment that is driving many to leave their professions, the report notes. But ultimately, it is the students who end up paying the price.

“Without the ability to engage with multiple points of view or to learn how to critically analyze information, the educational experience of all students will suffer,” the report concludes. “We should recognize these bills for what they are: a censorious power grab by an extreme and unrepresentative minority that undermines parents, children, teachers, and the democratic foundation of the American system of public education as a whole.”

The full report is accessible here.