In what has to be the most hilariously unconstitutional piece of legislation that I've seen in quite some time, senators in the Arizona state legislature have introduced a bill that would require all educational institutions in the state -- including state universities -- to suspend or fire professors who say or do things that aren't allowed on network TV. Yes, you read that right: at the same time the Supreme Court is poised to decide if FCC-imposed limits on "indecent" content in broadcast media are an anachronism from a bygone era, Arizona state legislators want to limit what college professors say and do to only what is fit for a Disney movie (excluding, of course, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. After all, those films are PG-13!).
But don't take my word for it, here is the full text of the bill (SB 1467) as it currently stands:
15-108. Public classrooms; compliance with federal standards for media broadcasts concerning obscenity, indecency and profanity; violations; definition
A. If a person who provides classroom instruction in a public school engages in speech or conduct that would violate the standards adopted by the federal communications commission concerning obscenity, indecency and profanity if that speech or conduct were broadcast on television or radio:
1. For the first occurrence, the school shall suspend the person, at a minimum, for one week of employment, and the person shall not receive any compensation for the duration of the suspension. This paragraph does not prohibit a school after the first occurrence from suspending the person for a longer duration or terminating the employment of that person.
2. For the second occurrence, the school shall suspend the person, at a minimum, for two weeks of employment, and the person shall not receive any compensation for the duration of the suspension. This paragraph does not prohibit a school after the second occurrence from suspending the person for a longer duration or terminating the employment of that person.
3. For the third occurrence, the school shall terminate the employment of the person. This paragraph does not prohibit a school after the first or second occurrence from terminating the employment of that person.
B. For the purposes of this section, "public school" means a public preschool program, a public elementary school, a public junior high school, a public middle school, a public high school, a public vocational education program, a public community college or a public university in this state.
You catch all that? The bill doesn't even require that the profanity be uttered in the classroom, it just generally says that if a professor or, for that matter, a K-12 teacher, engages in FCC-regulated conduct or speech at all, he or she can lose their job. Of course, even if this were limited strictly to classroom speech it would still be laughed out of court as unconstitutional on its face.
Irony abounds in this law, especially when you consider that it would require law professors to be suspended for discussing two of the most important Supreme Court cases regarding the First Amendment and free speech on campus. The first is the ever-famous case of Cohen v. California (1971), in which the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen could not be punished for wearing a jacket emblazoned with the slogan "Fuck the Draft." Indeed, the Court rightly noted in its decision that "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric." Meanwhile, one of the most important cases involving free speech on campus is Papish v. Board of Curators (1973), in which the Supreme Court protected speech that would never be allowed on network TV, including the headline "Motherfucker Acquitted." In defending the rights of student journalist Barbara Papish, the Court wrote, "the mere dissemination of ideas -- no matter how offensive to good taste -- on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of 'conventions of decency.'"
But the proposed AZ law goes much farther than the unconstitutional censorship in the Papish case. The law not only hobbles the ability to teach about sexuality and other non-Victorian topics, but it also puts teachers in jeopardy for teaching such mainstays as The Canterbury Tales, The Catcher in the Rye, certainly Ulysses, and probably every work by an obscure English writer named William Shakespeare. These days, such a law could certainly make any professor or teacher think twice about teaching Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut. And how on earth could you possibly teach a class about cinema studies without showing movies like The Godfather, The Graduate, Annie Hall, or for that matter, Pulp Fiction?
Legislators and, in many cases, campus bureaucrats need to know that real life and real education often includes "strong language and adult content."
(Special thanks to the National Coalition Against Censorship for bringing this bill to my attention!)