Arkansas bill targets cussing coaches

Monday, March 5, 2001

An Arkansas legislator has targeted profanity by athletic coaches at news conferences in a bill recently introduced in the state House.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Bob Mathis on Feb. 22, provides that “the state should not provide funding to an institution of higher education that allows coaches or coaching staff to use profanity or obscene language during a press conference.”

The bill continues: “No state supported institution of higher education that employs an athletic coach or a member of the athletic coaching staff that uses profanity or obscene language during a press conference shall receive any state funding during the next following fiscal year.”

The penalty would not be imposed upon schools if the coach or member of the coaching staff issues a “public apology” within 10 days of the profane outburst.

Mathis said he introduced the measure due to the language uttered by famed University of Arkansas Razorbacks basketball coach Nolan Richardson at a few news conferences.

“There are probably several of them that have, but the main one who has used foul language is Richardson,” Mathis said.

“It is simply not the place for that type of language,” he said. “This bill would not prohibit this type of conduct in locker rooms, though it is inappropriate there as well. But that’s between the coach and the players.”

When asked about possible free-speech concerns, Mathis responded: “That’s a bunch of bull. If I have someone working for me and my employee is cursing and acts like that, I won’t keep them. I don’t think the university should have to keep people on the public payroll who curse.”

At least one free-speech expert says the measure might pass constitutional muster.

“As kooky as it sounds, the measure is probably constitutional,” said Kevin O’Shea, publisher of First Amendment Rights in Education, a monthly legal report. “The legislature has a lot of control over public employees, and the coach is speaking for the university when he talks at a press conference.”

“Obscene and vulgar speech does not receive much protection in many circumstances,” he said. “However, the penalty is ridiculous.”

But David Greene, executive director of the California-based First Amendment Project, says the measure is constitutionally troubling.

“First, profanity is not a constitutionally defined term,” Greene said. “That part of the statute seems pretty clearly unconstitutional.”

Greene added that the measure was troubling because it singled out news conferences. “Why press conferences and not any public statement?” he asked.

“The overall defect is that it’s just an idiotic law,” he said. “The punishment is so vastly disproportionate to even the asserted, albeit dubious, harm that it’s laughable.”

The bill is in the House Education Committee.

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