Ariz. bill on teacher profanity: odd, unnecessary

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An odd piece of legislation has been introduced in the Arizona Legislature that would discipline public school teachers for using profanity in the classroom.

It’s unusual on a couple of fronts. First of all, there doesn’t seem to be any widespread problem in Arizona with profane teachers. Secondly, the bill uses the standards of the Federal Communications Commission’s indecency restrictions.

The FCC bars “indecent” broadcasts when children might be in the audience between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. That includes references to “sexual or excretory” activities in violation of community standards. Those standards are difficult to define, and have led to considerable litigation over the years, hardly the model for defining professional conduct in the classroom.

There’s probably not a First Amendment violation in limiting profane language in a K-12 classroom; employees at public institutions can be told to follow guidelines consistent with the role they play. Just as the school district can set dress-code standards and specify what is to be taught, administrators have considerable leeway in saying how it can be taught.

But as drafted, the bill would also place limits on college classrooms; that would undermine academic freedom and be unlikely to withstand constitutional scrutiny. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Lori Klein, told The Arizona Republic that she did not intend for the bill to apply to universities.

Also in question is whether the proposed law would limit the use of literature or films in K-12 classrooms. The bill is so poorly drafted that its real impact is difficult to gauge.

In any case, what could be the possible benefit of taking the decision-making control away from a local school district? Even if a rewritten and narrowly tailored bill doesn’t violate the Constitution, it’s not a good practice for state governments to place limits on expression, particularly when there’s such a viable local option.

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