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Texas imposed new 'educational gag orders' in 2023, says free speech group

 Dallas ISD law magnet class, 2022
Bill Zeeble
Dallas ISD law magnet class, 2022

A new overview of “educational gag orders” by the group PEN America finds Texas is among more than a dozen states clamping down on speech among students and teachers.

In a study released this month, America’s Censored Classrooms 2023, the free speech organization found 110 bills across 22 states have imposed restrictions on what and how sensitive or controversial subjects could be taught.

Texas bills affected both public K-12 and colleges. For example, 2023’s SB17 law ordered the end of DEI departments in state colleges and universities.

Jeremy C. Young, who directs Freedom to Learn at PEN America, says the legislation led to the dismantling of LGBTQ+ resource centers, multicultural inclusion centers and other diversity programing.

“I think there’s a full-on panic around race, gender, LGBTQ identity, you know, trans identity in particular,” Young said.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) said he wrote the bill specifically because DEI, created to help dismantle racism, was itself racist.

“SB 17 will ... put an end to all activities that discriminate against students based on their race, ethnicity, or gender,” Creighton wrote in a June 14, 2023, statement just after Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB17 into law. “The bill also prohibits diversity statements for job applicants at Texas universities and mandatory DEI training for any purpose.”

Young said DEI programs have helped an untold number of students on Texas campuses.

He said another bill, SB3, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2021, stopped a lot of hands-on civic activities and involvement by high school students, even though that’s how many students primarily learn about civic involvement.

“Where students were previously able to participate in civic activities,” Young explained, “which might involve voter-registration or some kind of debate or something like that - and do so for credit as a way of learning about their society — now, those students are disallowed from doing that,” he said. “Those programs are banned.”

Texas lawmakers also tried unsuccessfully to pass HB1804, the state’s own version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law (Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act) targeting LGBTQ+ students.

Young says these and other education bills and laws in Texas amount to a culture of censorship, which he says is always wrong.

“We would like everyone on every side to feel that their ideas will win out in an open debate,” said Young. “When you think about what the founding Fathers meant when they wrote the First Amendment, they were worried primarily about the official government suppression of speech.

“And that's what we're seeing in Texas and in other states today.”

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues. Heâââ