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Gag Orders in Higher Education

State laws target the teaching of race and American history

By Ben Dedman

November 1, 2021

In June, AAC&U joined PEN America, the American Historical Association, and the American Association of University Professors in releasing a joint statement opposing legislative efforts to restrict education about racism or American history. Signed by more than 150 associations and organizations, the statement upholds the belief that a “free and open society depends on the unrestricted pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.”

Following the joint statement, PEN America released Educational Gag Orders, a new report examining dozens of legislative attempts in 2021 to ban the teaching of “divisive” concepts. Three states have already passed legislation that targets the teaching of topics related to race, racism, gender, or American history at colleges and universities.

States Introduce Dozens of “Gag Order” Bills

  • Twenty-four state legislatures introduced at least fifty-four bills to restrict teaching or training in public K–12 schools, colleges and universities, and workplaces.
  • According to the PEN America report, most of the bills focus on the teaching of race, racism, gender, and American history and “appear designed to chill academic and educational discussions and impose government dictates on teaching and learning.”
  • Twenty-one of the proposed state bills include restrictions related to public higher education institutions, with nineteen restricting teaching at colleges and universities.

The “Divisive Concepts” behind the State Gag Orders

  • According to the PEN America report, forty-two bills (more than three-quarters of the state gag orders proposed this year) have “a clear antecedent” in the list of “divisive concepts” included in the 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping signed by former president Donald Trump.
  • Much of the proposed legislation seeks to ban schools from teaching about the “1619 Project” by the New York Times (eleven bills) or critical race theory (nine bills).
  • Ten bills want to ban “compelling” people to say they believe in a divisive concept, while eight bills would require the inclusion of “balanced” perspectives in teaching “controversial” topics.
  • Finally, one bill would ban teaching or curricula used to “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”

Gag Orders Are Now the Law in Nine States

  • Nine state legislatures have passed eleven of the bills, according to the PEN America report (see the figure below).
  • Three new laws in Oklahoma, Idaho, and Iowa include provisions directly related to training and orientations at higher education institutions. In Idaho, the law “additionally applies these ideological bans to academic instruction,” the PEN America report says.
  • The “chilling effects” of the legislation are already clear. The bill in Oklahoma led a university to suspend a “sociology course on race and ethnicity,” and professors at a university in Iowa received guidance to prevent them from “drawing scrutiny” from their teaching or curricula.
  • “These bills have already caused damage,” the PEN America report says. “The appropriate time to contest these ideological gag orders is right now, as legislators are considering them.”


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.