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‘Dirty words’ ban in Arizona schools advances

But changes limit censorship to teachers in classes below the college level

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Arizona's foul-mouthed college professors are off the hook. And secondary school teachers need just to watch their language in class.

The state's teacher-censorship bill underwent an overhaul last week amid fears it was too vague and could be extended to instructors' private lives. The proposal, which prohibits the use of the infamous "seven dirty words" or other language deemed indecent by the Federal Communications Commission's broadcast television policy, no longer affects state colleges or universities.

It also now explicitly states that it applies only to "a classroom setting," not private conversations or Internet postings, as previously written.

The bill cleared the state Senate's Government Reform Committee by a 6-2 vote last week. Its prime sponsor, Republican Sen. Lori Klein, said in an interview Monday that her real focus has always been school-age children, and the legislation now reflects that aim.

"These are the young, impressionable minds," she said. "We want to fill them with the highest ideals, values, education, that we can. By the time they're 18 and in college, they've already formed their views."

The measure has touched off a debate about both the free-speech rights of teachers and the state government's willingness to micromanage policy at the classroom level. Critics contend that limits on instructors' words should come only from district school boards, not the state Legislature. While most First Amendment advocates concede that the bill doesn't violate the Constitution, many worry that it would represent a dramatic power transfer.

"What could be the possible benefit of taking the decision-making control away from a local school district?" Ken Paulson, president of the nonprofit First Amendment Center, said in a statement. "It's not a good practice for state governments to place limits on expression, particularly when there's such a viable local option."

Ms. Klein agreed that, in a perfect world, school boards and principals would voluntarily crack down on cursing teachers. But, she said, that isn't happening.

At a state Senate hearing before last week's vote, Ms. Klein produced a witness who said his child was encouraged by his teacher to shout obscenities as a way to blow off steam.

Other panel members said they, too, had heard of teachers using inappropriate language in front of their students. It was only as a last resort, Ms. Klein said, that she decided to push the bill.

"The adults leading the classroom have to set the highest example," she said. "People are tired of this lack of civility. People are desensitized to how people should comport themselves in public. They may say this is an issue of local control. My point is, well, then control it. Because right now, you're not."

The amended bill also gives teachers a few more chances to clean up their acts, if need be. The original proposal called for firing after the third violation, but the amended version makes termination voluntary until the fifth incident. How those violations are tracked and confirmed is unclear, and some of Ms. Klein's colleagues remain concerned that students could abuse their newfound power.

"Are we taking a kid's word who might have an ax to grind? Who decides that it really happened? All of a sudden, we have a teacher hung out to dry ... because a rogue student or students say, 'Teacher, look what I'm going to do to you today; I'm going to go complain to my principal,' " said state Sen. Sam Smith, a Republican. "We all know that kids hold angst against teachers. ... It's almost like the inmates running the asylum."

Despite those reservations, Mr. Smith voted for the bill, but said a system to filter false claims must be implemented.

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