Censoring Curricula

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Protesters against critical race theory in June 2021 in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Photo Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters


Schools and universities have long been battlegrounds for high-stakes disputes about free speech in the U.S. Tensions in recent years, however, have stemmed less from the misadventures of inflammatory guest speakers or uncouth staff, but from something much more fundamental: what students are taught. PEN America, a free expression advocacy group, estimates that state legislators across 33 states introduced 122 “educational gag orders” in 2021, limiting classroom discussions on race, gender, and other “divisive” topics. The findings come at a time when public school boards and state governments have also restricted specific books from being taught in their classrooms or circulating in school libraries. Conservative lawmakers, the chief architects of these bills, claim they’re protecting American youth from a “radical” and “un-American” educational agenda. But their opponents see something far more sinister: a crass attempt to suppress subjects and perspectives that challenge tidy, simplistic, and exclusionary narratives of the American experience.

Case Study—Critical Race Theory

What is ‘Critical Race Theory’ (CRT)?
Why do people care about it?
The Bans and the Pushback
This Brookings Institution blog post provides a helpful (if slightly outdated) list of legislation from the local, state and federal level attempting to limit the teaching of race-sensitive topics in schools. Read through some curriculum censorship laws from…
And take a look at some federal proposals:

Point / Counterpoint

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think CRT, an otherwise obscure legal theory, has become the crux of such a heated national debate surrounding education? Why now?
  2. What do you make of conservative diatribes against CRT and similarly ‘divisive’ topics? Are they little more than cynical attempts to suppress discussions about oppressive dynamics and unsavory moments from the country’s past? How might you sympathize with their concerns? 
  3. How should American history be taught? What narratives and incidents should be prioritized, and why? 
  4. Are there any topics that should be added and covered more in educational curricula? If so, justify their inclusion. 
  5. Are there any topics that should be excluded from educational curricula? If so, justify their exclusion. 
  6. How have past educational standards for American history shaped people’s perceptions of the country? How are current standards shaping people’s perceptions? What standards would you change or keep for the future?
  7. Who should get to determine what is (or isn’t) taught in schools? Legislatures, school boards, parents, individual teachers? 


Click on these themes below: Artistic Expression + Legal Action

Discuss: What does this confluence of stories with these filters tell us about Free Speech issues surrounding educational requirements and curriculum development?

Tracker Entries



This course module was prepared by Jaime Moore-Carrillo, who joined the Free Speech Project in 2019 and served as principal research assistant for two years. The Boston native now works as a reporter.