Two examples of recent Don't talk about X in classrooms" state laws/legislation:

Florida: Wikipedia's LGBT rights in Florida; HB 1557/Parental Rights in Education/"Don't Say Gay" bill (2022) says:

In March 2022, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 1557, Parental Rights in Education, often referred to as the "Don't Say Gay" bill by its opponents. Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law on March 28, 2022. The law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to grade 3 in Florida public school districts, or instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not "age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students" in any grade. The preamble of the law also mentions "classroom discussion" of these topics, dividing legal scholars if that would be included within the scope of the law. It also allows parents and teachers to sue any school district if they believe this policy is violated, with school districts covering the cost of the lawsuit. The bill additionally prevents school districts from withholding information about a child’s "mental, emotional, or physical well-being" from their parents. Due to the "Don't Say Gay" nickname, some commentators and social media users thought the bill banned mentioning the word "gay" in school classrooms, though the bill does not actually mention the word "gay" or explicitly prohibit its use.

Alabama: Al.com's April 07/08, 2022 Alabama legislature passes surprise ‘Don’t Say Gay’ amendment, transgender bathroom restrictions says:

The Alabama legislature passed its own version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law Thursday after a surprise amendment to a transgender bathroom bill.

Thursday morning, the last day of the legislative session, Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, introduced an amendment that would prohibit classroom instruction or discussion on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades K-5.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about homosexuality and gender identity in schools, they should be learning about math,” said Shelnutt of the amendment.

The amendment’s language mirrors a new Florida law, which applies to K-3 grades. Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law, widely called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, last month that said “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The original bill, Alabama’s HB322, sought to require public school students to use restrooms and locker rooms designated for the sex shown on their birth certificates.

Question (not limited to LGBTQ/gender):

Question: Are "Don't talk about X in classrooms" state laws a relatively recent phenomenon in the US?

I'm not asking about legislation that's simply about curriculum in some way, but only about legislation that specifies clear, well-defined topics and makes it illegal for teachers to allow discussions about them in public school (or otherwise) classrooms.

Is this a fairly recent phenomenon, say mostly within the least five or ten years, or is there a long tradition of state legislatures making discussions of certain topics in classrooms explicitly illegal in the state?

  • 4
    I think there was a loooong list of things you do not talk about in the classroom in the 50s, even if it was implicit.
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 9:45
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    @alamar and if those topics were ever broached students were instructed to immediately duck and cover.
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 9:50
  • 4
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 10:57
  • 1
    @uhoh I'm old enough that I was trained to duck and cover. The training pretty much ended in the early 1960s when some comedian said it should be called "duck & cover & kiss your rear end goodbye!" Except he didn't say "rear end". He used a three letter word instead. Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 17:15
  • 2
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 17:36

1 Answer 1


It isn't really new.

One of the most famous cases in the United States was in 1925 when science teachers were prohibited from teaching evolution in the public schools of Tennessee under the Butler Act. Mr. Scopes, who did so anyway, was tried and convicted in the Scopes Trial of that year.

The Butler Act was a 1925 Tennessee law prohibiting public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of mankind's origin. The law also prevented the teaching of the evolution of man from what it referred to as lower orders of animals in place of the Biblical account. The law was introduced by Tennessee House of Representatives member John Washington Butler, from whom the law got its name. It was enacted as Tennessee Code Annotated Title 49 (Education) Section 1922, having been signed into law by Tennessee governor Austin Peay.

The law was challenged later that year in a famous trial in Dayton, Tennessee called the Scopes Trial which included a raucous confrontation between prosecution attorney and fundamentalist religious leader, William Jennings Bryan, and noted defense attorney and religious agnostic, Clarence Darrow. It was repealed in 1967.

On appeal from this trial court conviction, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the Butler Act was constitutional, but reversed the conviction on a technicality (that the jury should have fixed the amount of the fine), and the case was not retried. Scopes v. State, 289 S.W. 363, 367 (Tenn. 1927).

Despite losing the case at trial and not winning on appeal on the question of the constitutionality of the Butler Act, the Scopes Trial was a turning point in shifting public opinion in favor of teaching evolution in schools and against teaching creationism in schools.

Today, the Butler Act would very likely be successfully ruled unconstitutional in a First Amendment establishment cause challenge, but the validity of "Don't talk about X in classrooms" laws are not, in general, immediately suspect when they are restricted to public schools. For example, a bill prohibiting the teaching of "new math" in elementary schools, would probably be upheld as constitutional if sufficiently well defined to avoid attacks for vagueness.

This is because state governments have broader authority to direct what state and local public employees say in classrooms in the course of their official job duties than the government does to restrict speech by individuals acting outside their roles as government employees. See, more generally, here.

Indeed, since this class of laws is not itself prohibited, some of the stronger issues upon which to challenge the legality of Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, are whether it violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause prohibition on favoring one religious doctrine over another, or whether it amounts to a prohibited form of discrimination under either a statute or the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

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    – CDJB
    Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 10:13

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