If some Arizona lawmakers get their way, George Carlin’s “Seven Words” routine could be updated — “Seven Words You Can’t Say in School.”
About a half-dozen Republican state senators want to crack down on classroom cursing — only, it’s not the students who are the targets. And it’s TV that sets the rules.
Under legislation introduced this month, public school teachers and university professors could be suspended or even fired for using profanities or other obscene language that would be banned from network television under the Federal Communications Commission’s decades-old indecency policy.
Language not allowed on prime-time broadcast TV, such as the f-word, also would be off-limits for all instructors at any public school or college across the state. Milder curse words such as “hell” would be permitted.
For the first offense, a teacher or professor would be suspended for at least one week. The second violation calls for a two-week suspension, and a third offense would cost the instructor’s job.
Analysts say the bill is well-intended in spirit, but it would represent a dramatic shift of power away from local schools and to state government.
“I don’t see it as a First Amendment violation, but I also don’t understand why a state legislature feels the need to step in,” said Ken Paulson, president and CEO of the First Amendment Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
“These kinds of guidelines are best suited for an individual school district to formulate. It’s really not good news when state legislators step in to limit any form of speech, particularly when there is a viable local option,” he said.
Several Democrats have raised similar objections. Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, a former high school teacher, told the Arizona Republic over the weekend that while he firmly believes teachers shouldn’t curse in front of their students, “school districts should implement the policies,” not the state.
Making the bill even more controversial is the fact that it technically applies to teachers and professors even when they are outside the classroom. The measure states that “a person who provides classroom instruction in a public school” would be subject to penalties, but never says that the profanities must be uttered in the classroom.
Nor does the legislation, as drafted, specify that the teacher be the person using them.
As a result, for example, a teacher quoting “Glengarry Glen Ross” or “South Park” with friends on Twitter, or posting on a Facebook page a clip from those notoriously vulgar works, could be fired.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Lori Klein, a Republican most famous for pointing her pink handgun at a reporter last summer, is open to amending the legislation, the Republic reported.
Ms. Klein did not return calls from The Washington Times on Monday, and it is unclear whether the measure will be changed so it applies to teachers only when they are with students.
While prohibiting teachers from cursing in front of children may seem like a good idea, the issue gets much more complicated at the college level, Mr. Paulson said.
Most film studies courses, for example, feature movies that include profanities deemed indecent by the current FCC policy. The same holds true in literature courses and some music classes.
“Traditionally, universities are considerably more open,” he said. The policy “would have to be very carefully tailored. You could bar profanity by teachers, but not in books, films or music that would have considerable value in the classroom.”
If the bill becomes law, it could quickly become obsolete. In a widely watched case, the Supreme Court is mulling over whether the FCC’s broadcast policies themselves are unconstitutional.
The major television networks, led by Fox and ABC, have argued that the FCC guidelines are outdated because viewers today have hundreds of unregulated cable channels at their fingertips and unlimited access to obscene material on the Internet.
The Obama administration has joined forces with the Family Research Council and other socially conservative groups in arguing that families, especially those with young children, deserve to have a few channels guaranteed to be free from nudity and obscenity.
Many fear that the decision, which could be made as early as June, would open the floodgates for profanity and nudity on network television.