A new report released by PEN America documents a rise in laws that are designed to intimidate educators and librarians. The aim of these laws is to promote self-censoring. Rather than making headlines for banning books, those who wish to promote certain ideologies by limiting students’ access to books are using intimidation tactics. Their objective is to evoke fear that prompts educators and librarians to disregard topics and materials that might cause controversy.
What are intimidation laws?
According to pen.org, “Educational intimidation bills are part of the broader, ongoing ‘Ed Scare’—a nationwide effort documented by PEN America to foment anger and anxiety about public education; to restrict or prohibit instruction about race, sexuality, and gender; and to ban books that address these topics.”
In a report titled Educational Intimidation: How “Parental Rights” Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn, the organization examines the rise of educational intimidation bills, “a category of legislation that has the effect of prompting self-censorship in schools through indirect mechanisms, rather than direct edicts.” While PEN America has documented some intimidation bills affecting higher education, the majority of these laws target K-12 educators.
In its Index of Educational Intimidation Bills, PEN America identifies nearly 400 such bills that have been introduced in state legislatures between January 2021 and June 2023, and they have categorized bills by their intent. These bills generate fear, intimidation, or insurmountable obstacles in the following ways:
- Requiring teachers to post all instructional or professional development materials on public websites so that citizens can easily access these materials and issue objections
- Restricting students’ access to school libraries or empowering individual parents to gain control over which materials are allowed in school libraries
- Inviting parents to opt students into or out of certain content, greatly complicating school schedules and creating individually designed curricula that tears away at the unifying fabric of public school environments
- Expanding the definition of obscenity beyond its existing legal definition, and threatening educators and librarians with criminal penalties for violations
- Requiring teachers to monitor and report students’ gender expression
Many laws are making it easier for a single parent to disrupt the educational opportunities afforded to all students. From telephone tip lines to the filing of anonymous complaints, individual parents are being given increasing control over the professional decisions of educators and librarians.
How are these laws affecting teachers and librarians?
In an article titled “New Intimidation Laws Lead to Classroom Censorship,” PEN America’s editorial director, Lisa Tolin, provides specific examples of teachers and librarians who have lost professional autonomy over curriculum and reading material based on intimidation.
For example, an art teacher in Tennessee removed major figures from her teaching of art history because of laws that prohibit the teaching of concepts related to race or sex. She was merely introducing the artists and their work to her students, but because of the personal lifestyles of these artists, she knew she would face opposition. This teacher also noted the elimination of Black History Month observances and reported that third graders who have traditionally taken a field trip to a civil rights museum are now going to a baseball game instead.
There’s the case of a Virginia librarian who was subjected to a library inspection and received challenges that originated from a Moms for Liberty list. A teacher in Georgia was fired after reading My Shadow is Purple, a book that was available at the school book fair and was requested by her students.
In addition to legal actions, teachers and librarians also face personal harassment for defending students’ right to read. An Oklahoma teacher who informed her students about Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned program was removed from the classroom, but that was only the beginning. She was harassed online with graphic suggestions of violence, imprisonment, and even execution.
In Louisiana, a librarian who voiced opposition to the proposal of book banning was threatened and harassed to the point that she lived in fear and was unable to sleep. According to the article, “Strangers called her a ‘pedophile’ and a ‘groomer.’ One person filed a public records request for her employment history. Another sent her a message saying, ‘You can’t hide, we know where you live. You have a target on your back. Click click.’”
The battle is becoming exhausting for many teachers and librarians. Facing termination of employment, legal actions, and unrelenting harassment is unhealthy and unsustainable. In short, intimidation is effective because the consequences are overwhelming.
What can be done to battle intimidation laws and their effects?
The first step in addressing intimidation bills and the undue stress they place on teachers and librarians is to become informed. To more fully understand the issue of educational intimidation bills, read PEN America’s full report.
Next, find out what’s going on in your local school district. If you become aware of a book ban, you can report it to PEN America via this online form. PEN America and Penguin Random House have joined parents and students from Escambia County, Florida, in filing a federal lawsuit to challenge the removal of some books and the restrictions placed on many others.
Learn more about specific state challenges and PEN America’s #FREETHEBOOKS campaign. At this link, you’ll find many issues addressed in detail, and each has an “ADD YOUR VOICE” link that opens instructions for interested parties who want to take action.
Most importantly, as the surge in educational intimidation bills continues to grow, be a voice of support for the individual teachers and librarians who take a stand for students’ right to read.